To this end it is allowing the seasonal upsurge of Loyalist bigotry and the well-publicised internal party pressures on Unionist leader David Trimble, to provide the pretext for its stepped-up demands on the IRA.
The British government is playing along with those in the Unionist ranks who say they would not sit in an Assembly with Sinn Fein unless IRA disarmament was well underway. And it chooses to ignore the fact that many of those making this demand have been opposed to the Good Friday Agreement all along and wouldn't want to sit in an Assembly with Sinn Fein under any circumstances.
The Loyalists currently putting the squeeze on Trimble talk of the IRA as if it were the only armed group in the country. They never talk about the biggest arsenal -- that of the British Army -- nor do they mention the well-armed Loyalist paramilitary death squads and the danger they pose to the Catholic communities, to Progressive activists and the cause of peace.
The recent murder of Rosemary Nelson is an example of the continuing danger these reactionary forces pose.
No wonder the majority of people in the north of Ireland do not want these backward elements to hold their country to ransom or to let the chance for peace slip away.
When public opinion was tested at the time of the Referendum, three quarters of the people of northern Ireland voted in favour of the Good Friday Agreement -- obviously including many Protestants and traditional Unionist voters.
The arguments put forward by the Orange bigots are false. The Agreement does not make the decommissioning of weapons a pre-condition for the Northern Ireland Assembly to get underway. It does not say Sinn Fein can only take part when the IRA disarms. What it does require is for political parties to have the necessary support at the ballot box in order to sit in the Assembly -- a condition Sinn Fein has met.
It should be remembered that it was the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Fein who took the initiative in putting the Peace Process on the political agenda. The heart of the peace process is the struggle to achieve social justice, an end to sectarian discrimination, the removal of fear and the building of confidence.
Certainly peace is not going to be built by dyed-in-the-wool bigots. Peace will not be possible on the basis of demands that amount to surrender. Nor can peace be created without reform or without a commitment to justice.
Decommissioning is not being raised at this time by people committed to peace but by those who want to delay the process of peace. It is being raised by those who are opposed to social reform and a more equitable society.
And British imperialism, this world power, wrings its hands and pretends it can do nothing to stop its most loyal supporters in the Orange Order from throwing a spanner in the peace process works.
This is not believable. It is much more likely that British imperialism is tolerating something that it secretly wants -- an excuse to put the Republican movement under pressure. To maintain its own rule of the north of Ireland with the least possible resistance.
It is still the case that the problem is not Ireland but Britain. It is time the British government came under pressure from the working class movement here to demand that it throws its weight behind the Good Friday Agreement -- in the spirit it was drawn-up, not some latter-day Loyalist re-interpretation.
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THE FAMILIAR long hours of negotiations over the past week at Stormont Castle, Dublin, between all parties to the Irish peace process -- chiefly the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Sinn Fein with the British and Irish governments -- ended without agreement last week.
Not to lose momentum, a joint declaration between Irish Premier Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair last Friday, followed by more pronouncements since, has kept the immediate stage of talks alive.
Although the new deadline for the 30 June transfer of powers from Westminster to the Northern Ireland Assembly has therefore passed, this specific phase of negotiations did not collapse.
The two governments proposed the 15 July as the new date for the formation of the executive, while the Irish Republican Army (IRA) would have to make their position on their intent to decommission within days "clear and unambiguous".
Sinn Fein signalled throughout -- and with some impact -- that it can manoeuvre significantly. Its declaration, issued following the failure to set up institutions at the deadline, said space had been created by them for UUP leader David Trimble. Sinn Fein, it said, "went beyond anything we are obliged or required to do under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement."
This was fleshed out through discussions with United States officials. Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, leading to an agreement on 14 May between Sinn Fein. UUP, Social Democratic & Labour Party (SDLP) and British and Irish governments. This was the context of Sinn Fein and the UUP "jumping together".
That deal, to devolve power by 1 July, failed. Unionist hardliners scuppered it on the issue of decommissioning -- which they interpret, contrary to the Agreement, as a pre-condition. It is one-sided, demanding that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) disarm before Sinn Fein can take up its mandated posts on the shadow Northern Ireland Assembly executive.
Former Irish Premier Albert Reynolds pointed out last weekend: what about the current Loyalist attacks on nationalists? The Agreement stipulates all arms be removed and requires a process of general demilitarisation. The IRA has maintained a ceasefire for two years despite continued Loyalist terror.
Sinn Fein have made the signal powerful enough regarding arms hand over; sufficient for anyone aware of the track record of Republicanism to see its clear implications.
Its declaration, had 14 May succeeded, would have led to an announcement: "We believe that all of us, as participants acting in good faith, could succeed in persuading those with arms to decommission them in accordance with the Agreement."
Last Monday SDLP leader John Hume, while taking the view that an IRA clarification of its position on decommissioning would help, nevertheless said: "I now believe that Sinn Fein and the movement to which they belong are totally committed to the peace process and removing the gun.
Mechanisms put forward by the decommissioning body headed by General de Chastelain envisage a close verification of arms hand over in stages. May 2000 is the Agreement deadline for completion.
If decommissioning does not begin, then Tony Blair has said devolution will unwind back to the point at which the current talks began. In the Sunday Times, he said: "Within days of devolution, the paramilitary organisations including the IRA must notify intention to decommission...[T]here is not just one act of decommissioning but a process leading to complete decommissioning."
UUP objections to all parties being penalised for a supposed IRA transgression of the decommissioning process, led Tony Blair on Monday to suggest a legislative clause excluding Sinn Fein only while allowing the devolution process to go on.
We know what happened when Sinn Fein were wrongly excluded from the earlier stages of the talks leading to the Agreement -- no progress while excluded. Sinn Fein was brought back. President of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, said this move would breach the Agreement.
Last Tuesday Bertie Ahern reaffirmed that the British-Irish declaration and the Good Friday Agreement is "inclusive" and "collective". And he said: "The move made by Sinn Fein last week was a deeply important one and should be acknowledged by all of us as a hugely positive and constructive contribution to the search for a compromise."
Sensitivities are high. The potential is there to resolve this stage of the course. The combined confidence from the two Premiers, the US, the Canadian General heading the decommissioning body, and among many Unionists as well as in the broad nationalist community, that Sinn Fein can be tested on its word just like any other party is, in itself, a significant psychological factor.
The Agreement itself has the highest democratic credentials. It ceased to be a negotiating position the moment it was tested by a referendum. It was confirmed by a cross-community vote of over 71 per cent on 22 May last year, and both communities therefore expect their political representatives to carry that through.
The path out of the conflict has been chosen and the basis for change in the north and between north and south is sealed in that vote. Now, there is something close to being tangible, that they are all on the brink of entering into a structure of real change, not the abyss.
The constitutional changes in Britain, relative to Europe, are surely too great a shift in priorities for this process to be allowed to spiral out of control in northern Ireland. The potential of economic development in the context of the Agreement, is cross-community.
The provisions, though far from meeting Nationalist and Republican longer term demands, has come to form the basis for pressing more wholeheartedly for social and economic needs across the board. This requires the transfer of powers. It transcends the divide; time and effort shows how much could be lost if it is not implemented.
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by Caroline Colebrook
THROUGHOUT the past two weeks the Labour government has announced a series of major welfare "reforms" covering benefits to the unemployed, the low-paid, the elderly and the disabled.
The package of reforms is supposed to convince the working class that the government is still thinking about them but inflict they all amount to thinly disguised attacks on all who claim benefits or pensions.
The trade unions have not been fooled. They and a growing group of left Labour MPs are trying to stop these damaging changes.
The newly unemployed and the disabled are targeted by the new "One" benefit system, aimed to merge the Benefits Agency with the Employment Agency.
It will force all claimants to attend an interview with a special personal adviser to assess the claimant's job prospects. Failure to attend, even for the disabled, will mean benefits cut off.
This idea has been signalled by Labour for a long time -- it follows the American Workfare pattern. The most severely and obviously disabled will probably, after a lengthy and humiliatingly process, retain rights to some benefits -- though these are likely to be reduced.
It is the thousands of partially disabled who could do some work, and would probably be more than willing if they could only get a job, but who are likely to be rejected by every employer, who will come under most pressure.
For example, those whose condition is intermittent so they have to have a lot of time off; those who are suffering from depression and stress who will be driven to cracking point by this scheme.
driven into depression
Even those who sign on as perfectly healthy job-seekers can, over time, be driven into depression and become unemployable.
Another part of the reforms package is to abolish housing benefit and replace it with housing tax credits. This is aimed to stop the payment of £840 million in allegedly fraudulent claims.
Social Security Secretary Alistair Darling has said that the present system of housing benefit "is a disincentive" to finding work.
In other words, once again, the very poorest and most vulnerable will suffer most -- and stand at risk of homelessness.
The charity Mencap said: "Benefit cuts which deny people access to housing do not constitute reform but are a denial of basic human rights."
And the pressure group Shelter said: "Housing benefit, although flawed, does prevent homelessness and helps to keep roofs over people's heads."
And Labour intends to beef up the wage subsidy given to low paid families, changing its name from Family Credit to Working Families Tax Credit (WFTC).
Tony Blair claims that by the next election, low-paid families will be around £50 a week better off than they are now.
This subsidy would not be needed if the minimum wage -- and wages in general -- were not so abysmally low.
The government has rejected amendments from left-wing MPs that this should be paid for from a rise in income tax on the seriously rich.
In other words it is going to be a case of most of the working class funding this through their taxes -- many of them indirect like VAT -- to the ultimate benefit of bosses who pay low wages.
And the reforms package includes the much-signalled stakeholder pension schemes for those who cannot afford a full private pension on top ofthe basic state pension.
These stakeholder pensions will inevitably so small that all they will do at most is to Lift pensioners just out of eligibility for Income Support top ups.
In other words they will save the state a bit of money but will leave future pensioners no better off. And they do nothing for current pensioners.
A recent TUC report found that almost half the population has no private pension provision and will be dependent on the basic state pension plus income support top-ups.
The Labour leadership, at a national policy forum meeting in Durham last wee kend, conceded a new debate on welfare before any of these reforms are implemented after strong opposition from union leaders and left activists at the conference.
The unions and left MPs feared this would be used as a bargaining chip to block certain specific union demands, such as restering the link between the basic state pension and average earnings and restoring benefit rights to 16 and 17-year-olds.
The left MPs came under intense pressure to drop their amendments. One delegate said: "It was reminiscent of the worst back-stage manoeuvring at a party conference. They wanted all minority positions withdrawn."
Last Monday Chancellor Gordon Brown attacked the union leaders as "clinging blindly to policies that had failed in the past".
The debate is heightened by a new report from Unicef which shows that British children are among the unhealthiest in Europe, many affected by poor diet even before they are born.
The report said that Britain has the highest rate of babies born underweight (under 5.5 pounds).
And the report found that this ill-health and susceptibiiity to accidents goes hand in hand with poverty -- low wages and inadequate benefits. Further cuts can only make the situation worse.
The culmination of the welfare debate at the next Labour conference this autumn looks likely to present a serious challenge to Blairism from those who hold the Labour Party's purse strings and who are growing more and more impatient with New Labour.
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THE FIRST trainload of Russian paratroopers has left base near the central Russian city of Tula for the port of Novorossiysk. There the Russian peacekeepers will be expected to board Black Sea Fleet vessels which will take them to Greece and on to the Yugoslav province of Kosovo.
Russian military sources say it will take the 3,600-strong Russian battalion 40 to 45 days to reach Kosovo which is now under a Nato-led military administration. Even though they will be positioned in areas under US, British, French and German control, the Russians will receive political and military orders from Moscow.
Several hundred Russian troops have already flown in to Pristina to beef up the contingent which took over airport two weeks ago when the Balkan War ended. Russian units remain in control of Pristina airport and they are now working to restore it for regular military and possibly future civilian use. The Ukrainian government has just approved the despatch of 1,400 Ukrainian troops to join the KFOR peace-keeping force.
Russia and Greece have agreed to work together to reconstruct the Balkans following a meeting of the two country's deputy foreign ministers in Athens last week. Russia and Greece will carry out joint projects in power production, communications and infrastructure. The talks also covered the situation in the Balkans, Yugoslavia and the Cyprus problem, and both sides noted the similarity or full coincidence of their positions on the whole range of issues discussed.
Finland, whose president is currently chair of the European Union, will press for the removal ofeconomic sanctions on Yugoslavia. The Finnish Foreign Ministry stressed that this applies above all to the oil and air transport embargoes, which have hit Yugoslavia particularly harshly. But the Finns also say that sanctions should be lifted in stages and only with the full approval of the international community.
* Four members of the "Kosovo Liberation Army" were shot dead by French peacekeeping troops in Srbica after they resisted attempts to disarm them. Twenty more "KLA" men surrendered after the incident on Monday night. Last Saturday British paras shot dead two "KLA" gunmen in Pristina who opened fire during a victory celebration. Two other gunmen were wounded by the British soldiers.
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by Daphne Liddle
THE BRITISH Medical Association, meeting last week in Belfast for its annual conference, gave full backing for action including strikes to reduce the hours and improve the conditions of junior hospital doctors.
Dr Andrew Hobart, who chairs the BMA junior doctors committee, made an emotional speech describing the conditions and experiences of his colleagues and their bitterness at Labour's broken promises.
He said: "This government wants to modernise the NHS but perpetuates Victorian working conditions for the most vulnerable junior doctors.
"Poor accommodation, no hot food, long hours, no rest and relentless intensity and all for half pay.
"We will not tolerate this any more. We have asked, we have pleaded, we have begged and we have got nowhere. Junior doctors have finally had enough."
One of his colleagues, Fiona Kew, an obstetrician and gynaecologist from Sunderland said junior doctors might as well be serving fast food.
"We would make more money serving whopper burgers in Burger King on a Saturday lunchtime," she said, "than serving up life-saving care on a hospital ward.
"It goes against the grain for a caring profession to withdraw labour in any form. But we have no choice.
"At four o'clock in the morning, a junior doctor earns as little as £4.02 an hour, less than the nurse, less than a porter, less than a cleaner."
Dr Kate Adams of Whipps Cross Hospital, north London, said: "I started on a Saturday at 9am and finished on the Monday afternoon.
"I worked for 34 hours without sleep. I was so mentally and physically exhausted Icould barely speak.
"If I was a pilot or lorry driver who had worked that long I would be seen as dangerous and up on a criminal offence."
The conference also overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to call for the introduction of a £10 consultation fee for people to see their general practitioners.
It criticised Labour spin doctors for undermining morale in the NHS and bringing in changes without consulting doctors -- and leaking them to the press before telling health professionals.
The conference also criticised back door privatisation through the private finance initiative. Tony Blair responded by accusing the doctors of having a traditional culture of "snobbery" towards enterprise.
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