IRA unlikely to begin disarmament by deadline

Inaction could result in shutdown of legislature


LONDON -- Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, has ruled out the possibility that the underground paramilitary force will move to meet a crucial deadline Monday for the beginning of disarmament.

In a speech Thursday night that appeared to acknowledge the setback his statement would represent for the Northern Ireland peace settlement and the future of the fragile new government in Belfast, Adams said that while he understood the wish for immediate action, "It is not easy to get the IRA, or indeed any of the armed groups, to do this speedily. This is the reality."

Gen. John de Chastelain, a Canadian who leads the independent international panel overseeing the peace accord, is scheduled to issue a progress report Monday. The chairman of Sinn Fein, Mitchel McLaughlin, said yesterday that hopes that the report would contain evidence of IRA cooperation are "over-hyped expectations." The Press Association, Britain's domestic news agency, said security sources confirmed that the IRA had told the general that a move on weapons was not imminent.

A report of no progress will likely bring about the shutdown of the 2-month-old Northern Ireland Assembly, through the promised resignations of the leaders of its dominant party, the Ulster Unionists, or a decision by the British government to reimpose direct rule of Ulster from London.

David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionists and the first minister of the new legislature, was able to persuade his party to enter government with Sinn Fein in November by pledging that he and the other party members in the Assembly leadership would step down if there was not sufficient evidence by next month of the IRA's willingness to disarm. With that safety catch, he obtained 58 percent backing from his 860-member party council.

Many members of his party criticized his decision to abandon the long-held unionist "no guns, no government" disarmament demand, and he would have little chance of gaining support for continued Ulster Unionist participation in the absence of any matching IRA move on arms.

The Ulster Unionists are in no mood to be conciliatory after the British government announced last week that it planned to reconstitute the Northern Ireland police force and retire its Royal Ulster Constabulary name, which Protestants cherish.

"Unionists have been stretched to and beyond limit after limit after limit," Sir Reg Empey, a senior party member, said yesterday. "Our patience is completely exhausted in this matter."

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