Britain poised to end self-rule for N. Ireland

IRA must give up guns to avoid suspension of 2-month-old assembly

February 04, 2000|By Bill Glauber, | Bill Glauber,,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Britain moved last night to suspend Northern Ireland's 2-month-old power-sharing assembly unless the Irish Republican Army commits to disarming -- a guns-for-government gambit designed to save the peace process.

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson told Britain's House of Commons that he will introduce a bill today to remove political power from the British province and reimpose direct rule from London, with the law due to be approved late next week.

Faulting the IRA for failing to start the process of disarmament, Mandelson said that even at this "late stage," it was possible to fulfill the key ingredients of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that brought together Northern Ireland's majority Protestants and minority Roman Catholics.

"I appeal to the paramilitary organizations to heed the call of the people to get cracking and enable local self-government in Northern Ireland to flourish once and for all," Mandelson said.

"We have not reverted to direct rule yet," he said. "I hope that everyone will come to their senses, see the value in what has been created and not put it in jeopardy any more."

Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain and Bertie Ahern of Ireland met last night for two hours at a tiny cliff-top village in Cornwall as politicians worked to resolve Northern Ireland's latest stalemate.

Blair said afterward that disarming "has to be resolved and confronted in a clear way."

The crisis built up over the past few days as the international panel overseeing terrorist disarmament (or decommissioning, as it is formally known) in Northern Ireland reported that none of the major paramilitary groups had turned in arms, Mandelson said during his statement to a hushed House of Commons.

"If this continues, it is totally unacceptable," he said. "Notably in the case of the IRA, it has to be clear that decommissioning is going to happen."

Under terms of the Good Friday agreement, all terrorist weapons are to be given up by May 22, as Northern Ireland continues to wrestle with its most vexing issue while building new governmental institutions.

Northern Ireland's local government was established through a carefully crafted compromise brokered by former Sen. George J. Mitchell of Maine.

The Ulster Unionists, the leading Protestant party, agreed to enter the local assembly with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA. But the Ulster Unionists sought a guarantee that an IRA weapons handover would soon follow.

To apply pressure on the IRA, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble postdated a letter of resignation as Northern Ireland's first minister and scheduled a Feb. 12 meeting of his party's rank and file, presumably either to confirm the group's place in government or to vote for a walkout from the assembly.

Mandelson's maneuver was seen as a way to keep the peace process alive, create progress on arms and keep Trimble in government.

In his statement, Mandelson

pointed to a number of positives in the decommissioning report compiled by Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain.

"The cease-fires remain in place," he said. "The silence of the guns and the unequivocal support of the IRA and the other paramilitary groups for the political process have played a vital part in recent advances."

But Mandelson warned, "We cannot partially implement the Good Friday agreement. It is all or it is nothing."

Mandelson pleaded with Trimble and his Ulster Unionist col

leagues to "allow the events of the next few days to unfold before you make your final judgment."

Trimble responded by saying he would expect the Northern Ireland government to be suspended if there was no "clear, significant and verifiable decommissioning within the next few days."

Sinn Fein leaders appeared downcast that the local assembly might be suspended.

"The British government and Peter Mandelson need to be careful to stand up to the blackmail of the Unionists, who had to be dragged into the peace process," said Sinn Fein's chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin.

During an interview with the BBC, McLaughlin said the IRA made its position "very clear" in a statement issued earlier this week in which the group reaffirmed its commitment to the peace process.

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