Path cleared for N. Ireland power share

Ulster Unionists back leader's compromise for provincial government

`We've jumped - you follow'

Trimble puts leadership on line, sets deadline for IRA to begin disarming

November 28, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Overcoming decades of hatred and deep internal divisions, Northern Ireland's largest Protestant political party decided yesterday to back a compromise deal to set up a power-sharing government with Roman Catholics before the Irish Republican Army begins to disarm.

The Ulster Unionist Party council's vote clears the way for Northern Ireland to establish its first provincial government in more than a quarter-century.

Parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly are expected to name a 12-member Cabinet tomorrow that would assume power from the British government before the week's end.

The Ulster Unionist council's vote is a triumph for party chief David Trimble, who is to become first minister of the new provincial government. Trimble forged the compromise with Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, and put his leadership on the line in seeking the Ulster Unionists' support.

To do so, Trimble effectively set a deadline of two to three months for Sinn Fein to persuade the IRA to begin getting rid of its weapons. He promised the 858-member council a chance to vote on the deal again in February and told them that if the IRA had not started disarming by then, he would resign as first minister and pull the party out of the government.

Trimble won yesterday's vote and threw down the gauntlet to the leader of Sinn Fein.

"This clears the stalemate we have had in terms of the process," Trimble said. "Now, we've done our bit. Mr. Adams, it's over to you. We've jumped -- you follow."

Adams said Trimble's ultimatum went beyond the terms of the compromise painstakingly crafted during five weeks of negotiations with U.S. mediator George J. Mitchell.

`Fuel the uncertainty'

"It is, in my opinion, the wrong way to sort this matter out," Adams told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. "It will fuel the uncertainty, and it will also keep alive the hope of the rejectionists [of the peace process] inside and outside the Ulster Unionist Party."

Many unionists do not believe that the IRA intends to get rid of its weapons at all, and they see the agreement as a subterfuge by the republicans to get into government while keeping a private army to enforce their will.

Others suggest that Sinn Fein might be sincere about trading bullets for democratic politics but does not have the clout to get the IRA to disarm. Few unionists say they are convinced that the peace process will work, although many are willing to give it a try.

Northern Ireland's pro-British unionists, the majority of whom are Protestants, and the Catholic minority who want to be united with the Republic of Ireland signed a peace agreement in April 1998 calling for the establishment of a regional government with Sinn Fein in exchange for the disarmament of paramilitary groups such as the IRA.

The Good Friday accord was overwhelmingly endorsed by Protestant and Catholic voters, but until now neither side had been willing to take the first step.

The British, Irish and U.S. governments had all pressed Trimble to abandon his "no guns, no government" policy and test Sinn Fein's commitment to end 30 years of bloody conflict. But after days of intense talks with the British and Irish prime ministers in July, Trimble refused, and the peace agreement appeared on the verge of collapse.

Mitchell, a former Senate majority leader, who had brokered the original agreement, was called back in September. Under the deal Mitchell hammered out with the two sides, Trimble agreed to form a government with Sinn Fein in exchange for a public commitment by the IRA to name a senior member to an international commission on disarmament.

The IRA representative would be appointed the same day the Cabinet took power, and disarmament would be completed by May 2000, according to the terms of the Good Friday accord.

In the council's hands

The fate of the step-by-step compromise was entirely in the hands of the Ulster Unionist council, and Trimble was by no means guaranteed its support going into the closed-door meeting in Belfast yesterday morning.

Six of the 10 unionist members of the British Parliament had declared their opposition to the deal. The Ulster Unionist council -- made up of farmers, homemakers, small-business owners and local politicians -- was seen as highly unpredictable.

Trimble called the meeting at the modern Waterfront Hall, on the banks of the Lagan River.

According to delegates, the three-hour debate was extremely emotional, with 27 people speaking for or against the motion that Trimble put forward to allow him to proceed until February.

The final vote was 480-349, about 58 percent in Trimble's favor. It was short of the two-thirds majority Trimble's camp had hoped to get, but enough to declare victory over opponents in his divided party.

Key to Trimble's success was the support of his deputy, John Taylor, who originally spoke out against the deal but came around in the 11th hour.

Resignation letter

Trimble told the delegates yesterday that they would never get a better opportunity to bring the conflict to an end. Then, he said he had given the party president a letter of resignation as first minister to hold in the event disarmament had not begun by February.

His lieutenant, Ken Maginnis, told the crowd that a "no" vote would likely mean isolation for Northern Ireland's unionists. The British, U.S. and Irish governments would wash their hands of them, delegates quoted him as saying.

"This is the lesser of two evils, and we've got to give it a try," said Tom Davison, 83, a delegate from Bangor who said he made up his mind after listening to the speeches.

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