Trimble, Mallon accuse each other of blocking deal
Mr David Trimble and Mr Seamus Mallon have clashed over who was responsible for the failure to reach agreement on the North-South element of the Belfast Agreement during Wednesday night's talks brokered by Mr Tony Blair.
The North's First Minister, Mr Trimble, has admitted that the February date for devolution is now unlikely to be met because of the deadlock but has nonetheless insisted that agreement can be achieved.
Mr Mallon and Mr Trimble directly and by strong implication accused each other of dishonouring a deal they said was forged early on Thursday morning, after a night of negotiations involving the British Prime Minister.
Mr Trimble and other senior Ulster Unionist Party figures claimed that after the makings of an agreement had been achieved on Wednesday night/Thursday morning nationalists had upped the ante by making unacceptable additional demands.
Mr Trimble, before flying out to Washington yesterday, said an approaching deal had been damaged by fresh demands from a party that he refused to name but implied was the SDLP. "There wasn't a deal. We thought we had broken the back of it - and then we were to sort out the details - and found fresh obstacles being created," he told the BBC.
Unionist sources have stated it was a meeting of Assembly members on Thursday that prompted the party leadership to seek more time before deciding whether to agree the formula devised on Wednesday night or whether to totally reject the proposals.
Sources said Assembly members were angry that nationalists were dictating the pace of negotiations. "There were genuine fears expressed at the meeting. People wanted time to see what was being agreed, and to reflect upon it," one UUP Assembly member said.
Mr Trimble conceded that the proposed timetable of a February transfer of powers to the Assembly was proving more and more difficult. Realistically, it seemed that devolution would have to be put back to March at least. Despite the difficulties he nonetheless remained positive that final agreement would be achieved not too far past the deadline.
The Deputy First Minister, Mr Mallon, accused the Ulster Unionists of breaking a deal and creating a public credibility problem with the Belfast Agreement. "People did not honour their word. That's putting it as mildly as I possibly can," he said yesterday.
"Apart from myself, there is very substantial anger among the other political parties at the way in which the Ulster Unionist Party seems to have walked away from an arrangement it had made, and walked away for somewhere in the region of eight hours," he added.
Mr Mallon said this problem would delay the creation of NorthSouth implementation bodies. "I know what it is going to do to the political process and I can see it even already beginning to erode the credibility that the peace process in the Assembly has had within the community," he added.
In Dublin the Taoiseach and the Sinn Fein president, Mr Gerry Adams, agreed that the issue of North-South bodies should be settled before Christmas if at all possible.
After their meeting at Government Buildings yesterday, Mr Adams warned that he "could not overestimate the seriousness of this impending crisis" in the peace process.
Mr Adams said unionists had not been able to sign up to a deal on North-South bodies this week because they remained wedded to the idea of preserving their ascendancy.
"There was a deal done this week, and it was undone by unionist bad faith," he said. Calling for a "concerted and coordinated focus" from the two governments to resolve the matter, he added that anyone who thought David Trimble had been forced to backtrack by supporters was mistaken. "Mr Trimble had no intention of reaching agreement, except on his terms and in his own time."
He had warned the British Prime Minister early on Thursday morning that the deal was not secure, he added. Before returning to London from Belfast, Mr Blair had told him agreement would be reached by Thursday evening and Mr Adams said he had replied: "Don't be too sure - it won't be done in your absence."