Frantic week in Northern Ireland concludes on forward-looking note

Belfast assembly frozen, but two sides keep alive opportunity for accord


BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- A frantic week of talks, ultimatums and deadlines that fed the conviction that Northern Ireland was discarding a promising chance to escape its rancorous past ended yesterday on a benign, forward-looking note.

The province still faces an uncertain future, with its new government of Catholics and Protestants shut down and no clear procedures in place to restore it.

But David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, emerged from an afternoon meeting of his ruling party council to say that his support and his party's determination to pursue power-sharing government were greater than ever. He reported jauntily that post-dated letters of resignation that fell due yesterday were now "invaluable historical documents."

Trimble had faced being ousted by his party over the failure of the Irish Republican Army to begin disarming, but he was saved by Britain's suspension Friday of the 10-week-old Ulster government and reimposition of direct rule from London.

The Ulster Unionists entered government in November only on the condition that there would be weapons turnovers by now. Trimble's pledge to step down was the insuring collateral.

Moments after Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson suspended the Belfast government, the IRA declared that it was prepared to make long-awaited moves on weapons. The word emerged in a rushed report from Gen. John de Chastelain of Canada, head of an international disarmament panel.

Mandelson said he believed that the new report on the IRA's more cooperative stance would not have been sufficient to save Trimble from having to resign, and thus he had no second thoughts about putting the Belfast administration on hold.

Britain believes that Trimble is the key to keeping the Ulster Unionists committed to the peace arrangements and fears that any successor to him might scuttle them. Though the IRA assurances did not stop suspension of local government, they seemed to be the basis for negotiations this week. Yesterday, Trimble said he would meet with Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, this week.

The general's report said, "We find particularly significant, and view as valuable progress, the assertion made to us by the IRA representative that the IRA will consider how to put arms and explosives beyond use."

Putting arms beyond use could be a method of destroying arms or sealing off arms caches that would allow the IRA to disarm in a way that did not constitute surrender in its eyes. A subsequent reference in the report to "the removal of the causes of conflict" might mean the departure of the British from Northern Ireland.

Mandelson said the IRA had not answered the critical questions of whether it intended to disarm and how and when it proposed to do so. But he said the new report contained the "potential" to restore home rule to Northern Ireland.

The two sponsors of the peace agreement, London and Dublin, and its most vigorous international booster, Washington, issued statements calling the new IRA stance constructive.

The sense of optimism yesterday was fueled by the realization that the peace settlement had been extricated from its most serious threat, that Trimble was still in place and that Sinn Fein was still on board. There also was no hint that the paramilitary cease-fires, in their third year, might end.

Pub Date: 2/13/00

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