N. Ireland political transition unravels

Boycotted by Trimble, Assembly spirals into farce, recrimination


BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- What was supposed to have been the most important day in the evolving Northern Ireland peace agreement became a scene of chaos, farce and recrimination yesterday.

By the end of a morning meeting of politicians that was meant to inaugurate a new era of government for the conflicted British province, the new Northern Ireland Assembly had been shut down indefinitely, one of its principal figures had resigned in disgust and the British government had announced in London that the peace agreement was on hold.

The confusion began when David Trimble, head of the main Protestant party, and his 28 Ulster Unionist colleagues boycotted the Assembly session, which was scheduled to nominate Cabinet ministers.

Trimble, who is also the head or first minister of the Assembly, had dashed hopes of any further progress on the peace accord when he said Wednesday night that his party could not share power with the largely Catholic Sinn Fein, the political associates of the Irish Republican Army, unless the IRA begins to disarm.

Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon of the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party reacted with fury, announcing yesterday that he was resigning and calling on Trimble to do the same. He accused Trimble of "dishonoring the spirit and insulting the principle" of the peace agreement and said he had "bled the process dry" with his unyielding pressure for concessions.

Mallon concluded with a dismissive motion toward the empty rows of black benches belonging to the Ulster Unionists, so named because they support continuing union with Britain. "I," he said, "do not treat this house with contempt."

It emerged afterward that Mallon's resignation may force Trimble to give up his position as first minister. Under the procedures of the power-sharing Assembly, in six weeks Trimble must either find another Roman Catholic deputy -- a daunting task in the atmosphere he has created -- or step down.

The break between the two men sent a dismaying message to those working for peace in Northern Ireland because their public partnership had been one of the most promising symbols of an emerging cooperation between Ulster's warring religious communities in the 15 months since the signing of the accord. Trimble was awarded the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with John Hume, who is the head of Mallon's party and his closest associate.

Just the opposite of that kind of spirit was symbolized by yesterday's uproarious session, with the members of the hard-line Ulster Democrats jeering Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, and Adams excoriating their leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, as disgraceful. The one thing they agreed on was the use of "farce" to describe the atmosphere.

Because of the absence of the Unionists, the Assembly was unable to name a new Cabinet with the required Catholic-Protestant mix, and it adjourned with no date for returning. The only parties willing to nominate ministers were Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labor Party, and the result was a 10-member all-Catholic shadow Cabinet that held office for less than an hour.

The exercise descended into farce when the acting speaker, Lord Alderdice, had to give the missing Trimble five minutes under the body's standing orders to name his minister. Derisive laughter filled the hall as the legislators watched the minutes tick off on the official clock above Trimble's empty chair.

The Unionists' decision had the effect of blocking the transfer of power over local affairs from the British Parliament in London to the Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast, which had been scheduled for Sunday. The step would have represented the most substantive evidence yet that the province had put behind it the sectarian violence that has taken more than 3,200 lives.

In London, Mo Mowlam, secretary for Northern Ireland, said that the British and Irish governments were reviewing the peace accord and that Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish Republic counterpart, Bertie Ahern, would meet next week to decide on the "nature, agenda and timetable" of the review.

She told a somber House of Commons that it was the implementation of the agreement rather than the agreement itself that would be under study. "Today is a setback, it would be foolish to deny that."

"But it would be even more foolish to conclude that the Good Friday Agreement cannot continue," she added, in a reference to the day in 1998 when the accord was signed.

The April 1998 agreement establishes governmental bodies and commissions aimed at balancing the demands of Northern Ireland's two main religious communities and parceling out authority between them.

It was approved overwhelmingly in referendums in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, but politicians have been quarreling about it for more than a year, with guerrilla disarmament at the root of disagreements.

Blair seized upon the Northern Ireland problem in his first week in office in May 1997 and made it a personal crusade. In recent weeks Blair had come up with compromises and concessions in an attempt to persuade Trimble not to back out of entering government with Sinn Fein.

Speaking to a conference in London's financial district yesterday afternoon, Blair said the politicians of Northern Ireland would never be able to work together unless they develop some confidence in one another.

"Only one thing remains outstanding," he said. "It is a matter of trust: Will Unionists really share power with non-Unionists, will republicans really give up the gun?"

Blair said he believed the answer to both questions was yes, but that unless people learn from the pain and injustice on the other side as well as their own, "then politics, normal politics in Northern Ireland will never take root and there will therefore never be peace."

Pub Date: 7/16/99

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