UUP man says Burke should step aside until name cleared


Mr Ray Burke should step aside from the Stormont negotiations until his name is cleared, a senior member of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) talks team suggested yesterday.

Concern about Mr Burke has also been expressed within the SDLP because of that party's fear that he cannot in the circumstances apply sufficient concentration to the talks.

The UUP source, who was not unsympathetic to Mr Burke's personal position, said nonetheless it was difficult on a human level to see how he could remain focused on the talks "against the background noises in Dublin".

"Would it not be better for Mr Burke to withdraw from the talks until this whole thing is cleared up, rather than to go ahead with this death of a thousand cuts? It can't be helpful to the Northern Ireland talks, or to his personal circumstances," he added.

The UUP negotiator said Mr Burke must be treated as innocent until proven guilty. However, the continued media focus on the issue must have an effect on his talks performance. The talks are to begin formally on a three-strand basis tomorrow, and already the controversy surrounding Mr Burke had become something of a "music hall joke" at Stormont, he added. "You have comments like, `Leave the back door open, if we're lucky some fellow might come in and leave us a couple of brown paper bags of cash'. " The source said he would not go on the record as, if Mr Burke remained in the talks, he wanted to be able to deal with him without embarrassment.

"This reminds me of the talks of 1992 when, with some prospect of an agreement, the talks were debilitated by the gradual implosion of the Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrats government. The Dublin ministers from the two parties weren't really negotiating. They were just guarding their flanks. We don't want to go through that again," he added.

The suggestion that a weakened Dublin negotiating team might help the unionist position was nonsense. "A weak Irish Government is no good to us because difficult decisions are going to have to be taken, and weak governments can't sustain difficult decisions.

"I think Mr Burke should leave the talks for a while, and then when he is exonerated he can return to them with a vengeance. His credibility or his honour would not be damaged by such a move," he said.

Officially, the SLDP would make no comment, saying Mr Burke's continued role in the talks was purely a matter for the Government. But it is known that there is some concern that the nationalist argument in the talks might be weakened if Mr Burke is not properly focused.

"We are making absolutely no judgment on Ray Burke personally, but with the best will in the world he cannot be concentrating full-time on the talks," said one senior SDLP figure.

A Sinn Fein source said people should await the outcome of tribunals of inquiry before deciding whether Mr Burke should remain as leader of the Government's talks team. "We, as republicans, have been pronounced guilty without the benefit of a trial so often that we are not now going to start labelling others guilty without without them first getting a fair hearing," he said.