Irish peace accord stalls

With no IRA guarantee to disarm, Unionists refuse to join assembly

Won't sit with Sinn Fein

Blair hopes to revive N. Ireland peace plan


BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Ulster's main Protestant party said last night that it would not join the political wing of the Irish Republican Army in government as scheduled today, a decision that will stall the Northern Ireland peace agreement.

David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionists, spurned a series of last-minute appeals and concessions from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, saying they had failed to sway his party's members from their conviction that they cannot share power with Sinn Fein as long as its IRA allies refuse to start disarming.

The decision will have the effect of blocking the transfer of home rule authority from the British Parliament in London to a new Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast.

The transfer would have been the most critical step in the peace settlement and the most convincing evidence that the British province had moved away from war and toward political resolution of its deep-seated conflicts.

The Good Friday accord, aimed at ending 30 years of sectarian violence that has taken more than 3,200 lives, was signed to worldwide acclaim in April 1998.

But its implementation has been delayed by the dispute over guerrilla disarmament.

Blair had insisted that the deadlines for action were absolute and that failing to meet them would leave Northern Ireland staring into the "abyss" of its violent past.

However, last night his spokesman said that he would press ahead with finding ways to revive the stalled process.

"We have always acknowledged that the Ulster Unionists have difficulties with this," the spokesman said.

"We still believe this is the best way forward and will continue to try to persuade people of that."

Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister who is a co-sponsor of the peace plan, said in Dublin that he was "gravely disappointed" by Trimble'saction, which he termed a "mistake of historic proportions."

Earlier yesterday, Mo Mowlam, the British secretary for Northern Ireland, issued the formal directive for the 108-member Assembly to meet today to nominate the 10 members of the Cabinet that would, in effect, become the new Ulster government.

This step has long posed a challenge for Trimble, who is the new parliament's first minister, because two of the seats belong to Sinn Fein.

Letting the procedure go forward would formally provide that party its entry into the government.

Distribution of seats

The vote totals amassed by the parties during last year's legislative elections entitle the Ulster Unionists and the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate John Hume, to three seats each.

Sinn Fein and the hard-line Protestant Democratic Unionists led by the Rev. Ian Paisley have two each.

The expectation now is that Trimble will refuse to name ministers, thereby putting an end to the plan.

Under the terms of the agreement, the British and Irish governments will then "suspend" the entire accord, probably putting it on hold and subjecting it to at least a summer-long review.

The regional parliament, based on a power-sharing formula that permits passage of legislation only if it has the support of representatives of the province's Protestant and Catholic communities, was the centerpiece of the agreement but now remains powerless.

Attempts to compromise

Blair had scrambled yesterday to come up with legislative amendments for Trimble to pass along to a critical meeting of his 110-member party executive in Belfast last night.

In a final attempt to get the Unionists to form the power-sharing government, Blair offered an amendment that would provide a specific timetable for IRA disarmament to be set by John de Chastelain, a retired Canadian general who chairs an independent commission on disarmament.

Another amendment, Blair said, would allow the government and assembly to "clearly and formally identify" the political parties linked to paramilitary groups that do not disarm.

But he had not stilled Trimble's worries. The Ulster Unionist leader ended up calling the proposals "deeply flawed" and unfair to his party.

The Ulster Unionists said they feared that they could end up sitting in government with a party -- Sinn Fein -- that would keep its secret army intact and be able to resist attempts to expel it for any failure to comply with weapons-turnover pledges.

While Trimble and his party dismissed the last-minute offers as too vague, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams lambasted Blair's 11th-hour wooing of the Ulster Unionists as undermining the Good Friday agreement.

Mitchel McLaughlin, Sinn Fein's political strategist, said: "With Republicans there is a deep, deep anger at the extent to which Mr. Blair is prepared to subvert the Good Friday agreement in an attempt to bribe Mr. Trimble.

"He did make an effort, and David Trimble has quite clearly thrown it back in his face."

Outside party headquarters last night, members of the Ulster Unionists said that Trimble's stature had risen because of his standing up to Blair and to President Clinton, who had called him during the past week urging him to take the risk for peace.

"He showed he will not compromise the principles of democracy by letting terrorists sit in government," said Arnold Hatch, a member of the executive.

Pub Date: 7/15/99

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