Facebook Twitter

N. Ireland chief quits in protest

SHARE N. Ireland chief quits in protest

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Britain and Northern Ireland's rival politicians pledged to rescue the province's Catholic-Protestant administration after its leader resigned Sunday over the IRA's refusal to disarm.

Ulster Unionist Party chief David Trimble defended his decision to quit as the coalition's senior minister, arguing this was the only way left to compel the Irish Republican Army to start scrapping its weapons, as the Good Friday peace accord of 1998 envisaged.

"I'm prepared to resume that office, but only if we get this issue settled, and if we see weapons being put permanently beyond use in accordance with the decommissioning legislation," Trimble said in Thiepval, France, where he was attending commemorations for Northern Irish soldiers killed in World War I.

Trimble has twice led his British Protestant party into governments alongside moderate Catholic politicians and Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party, on condition that the outlawed IRA begin disarming. Trimble's resignation means the four-party administration should elect a new leader, or collapse, by Aug. 12.

"I am sorry that David Trimble has resigned today as first minister, although I fully understand the reasons why he has felt it necessary to do so," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in London.

Blair, who plans to lead Northern Ireland negotiations within two weeks, said he wants "to see the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement in all its aspects." Lower-level talks resume Monday. With the IRA refusing to start disarming as the Good Friday pact and two subsequent agreements intended, politicians are debating how to prevent irreparable damage to a power-sharing administration that has taken years of painstaking negotiations to create.

Although the IRA last year began showing some of its secret arms dumps to foreign diplomats, Sinn Fein on Sunday appeared to rule out having any of these weapons destroyed in the coming crucial weeks.

Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said the IRA "will not respond to blackmail from unionists." He called on Ulster Unionists — already split down the middle by Trimble's original decision to share power with Sinn Fein — to find a new leader and "come up with a more sensible and productive approach."

Britain could strip the coalition of power and resume direct control, as it did in February 2000 when the IRA last dug in its heels on disarmament and Trimble appeared about to be ousted by Protestant hard-liners.

If Britain mothballed the administration again, it would eliminate the Aug. 12 deadline and give rival negotiators an indefinite period to try to resolve the chronic arguments about IRA weapons and Sinn Fein's counterdemands on police reform and British military cutbacks.

But Trimble and Sinn Fein have both appealed to Britain not to take this route — Trimble because he wants maximum international pressure to build on the IRA, Sinn Fein because it rejects Britain's right to grant and withdraw power.

Both sides privately agree they might not be able to resuscitate their administration if Britain put it on life-support this time.

If the IRA does not move on arms, the only other way to keep Protestants in the government would be to have Sinn Fein's two ministers expelled from the 12-member administration.

That prospect has long been confined to Protestant fantasies. It could become an option if the coalition's biggest Catholic-supported party, the moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party, decided Sinn Fein should be held accountable for IRA actions.

The SDLP deputy leader, Seamus Mallon, had been the coalition's senior Catholic minister until Sunday, when Trimble's resignation had the legal effect of forcing his own resignation from the post of deputy first minister. Mallon now must be re-elected on a joint ticket with Trimble or another Ulster Unionist.

He pinned primary blame for the crisis on Sinn Fein, accusing his Catholic rival of "hypocrisy that cannot be tolerated."

But he would not say whether his party would ever use its majority Catholic position within the legislature to bar Sinn Fein from office.

The IRA must disarm, he said, "not to satisfy British government or unionist demands but rather to fulfill the wishes of the people, north and south, who have made clear their backing for the agreement."

The Good Friday pact received 71 percent backing from voters in Northern Ireland, and 94 percent support from voters in the Republic of Ireland, in a May 1998 referendum.

Mallon branded Trimble's resignation a tactical blunder that would throw "the political process here into further turmoil at a time when there's great unrest on the streets."

In the coming two weeks the province's major Protestant brotherhood, the Orange Order, is staging hundreds of annual parades, some of which face hostile Catholic opposition. Their conflict has triggered riots almost every year since 1995.