Unionists assured by Mayhew there will be no general amnesty

 

THE Northern Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, last night countered unionist concerns about his government's proposals on the mechanism for decommissioning by declaring that there would be no general amnesty for terrorist crimes.

Sir Patrick met leaders of the loyalist UDP at Stormont to discuss the implications of the announcement by UDA and UFF prisoners that they were withdrawing their support for the peace process. He said anything that might weaken support for the loyalist ceasefire was dangerous.

Meanwhile, UVF paramilitary prisoners indicated that they were not yet following the line adopted by their UDA counterparts. And political representatives of the UDA indicated that the prisoners' statement does not mean that they wished to see an end to the loyalist ceasefire.

As the deadlock over decommissioning hardened, the Sinn Fein president, Mr Gerry Adams, told reporters in Belfast the present political vacuum was extremely risky and dangerous.

Mr Adams called on the two governments to convene "proper talks" and remove preconditions. He refused to speculate on the possibility of a renewed IRA ceasefire and said that in the present circumstances, the British government should note the example of the Washington talks convened over the Middle East crisis.

The two governments last night published the joint paper they have circulated to participants in the multi party talks, setting out a possible way forward on decommissioning.

The suggestions it contains have already been rejected by the UUP, which said the proposed referral of decommissioning to a special committee was "totally unacceptable" and tantamount to "burying" the issue.

Sir Patrick said, however, that the document did not represent a blueprint "or a kind of `fiat'" from the two governments. It illustrated their view, within the Mitchell Principles, of what a broadly acceptable outcome to the debate might look like.

Sir Patrick said a way forward had to be found on decommissioning which would protect the interests of all participants.

Clarifying the "enabling legislation" proposed by the governments, he said the "so called immunity from prosecution" would be extremely tightly drawn, as recommended by the Mitchell Report.

To secure as many of the illegally held weapons as possible, they wanted to have a scheme of immunity from prosecutions which would protect people from being prosecuted, typically for possessing weapons that would come to light in the course of decommissioning.

"Obviously, people who believe that they would be arrested and charged and prosecuted for possessing explosives if they were caught with them taking them to wherever they were going to hand them over to a commission are not going to do it, or are going to think twice about it," he said.

However, restrictions upon forensic testing and the use of evidence derived from armaments that had been decommissioned would be very tightly drawn.

"There is no general amnesty. Anybody who is able to be prosecuted on admissible evidence, other than that which has come into existence in the course of decommissioning, for offences already committed they will have no immunity from prosecution at all," said the Northern Secretary.

On the loyalist prisoners' statement, Sir Patrick said their concern clearly was their belief that republicans or some republicans were not committed to the search for a tasting peace.

He hoped the loyalist ceasefire would be maintained. For it to be abandoned could only serve the interests of the very people to whom loyalists were so strongly opposed.

However, he said there could not be special concessions outside the law for the prisoners.

The Church of Ireland Primate, Archbishop Robin Eames, also revealed yesterday that he has "pleaded" with the loyalists not to further the threat to their ceasefire because that would "lead us down a path where there is going to be nothing but suffering and loss of life right across the community".