Protestant leader backs Ulster power-sharing

But with peace at stake, Trimble postpones vote to re-enter government

May 19, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - With a peace deal at stake and his political career on the line, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble backed yesterday his party's return to a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland.

But in a play for time and votes, Trimble, Northern Ireland's leading pro-British Protestant politician, postponed from tomorrow until May 27 a pivotal ballot by the party's 860-strong ruling council to re-enter the local government.

The delay forced Britain to scrap plans to restore home rule in Northern Ireland on Monday.

The province has been in a political stalemate since February, when the 72-day-old local government that brought together nearly every political stripe among majority Protestants and minority Roman Catholics was suspended after a deadlock over how to get paramilitary groups to give up their weapons.

The Irish Republican Army appeared to break the deadlock May 6 when it pledged to put its weapons "verifiably and completely beyond us," and offered to open weapons dumps to international monitors.

"Some people might say to me, `How do we know that the IRA will, in fact, put the guns beyond use, completely and verifiably?'" Trimble said last night. `The answer to them is, there is only one way to find out."

In an interview with British Broadcasting Corp., Trimble said the IRA "wouldn't have made this offer" if his party hadn't "put them to the test."

His announcement ended a frantic week of behind-the-scenes negotiations as the British and Irish governments sought to keep the peace process on track.

Trimble's moves sets up a make-or-break moment for the Northern Ireland peace process, which is designed to bring normalcy to a land in which pro-British Protestants want to remain part of the United Kingdom, while many Catholics seek a united Ireland.

Under terms of the 2-year-old Good Friday peace agreement, guerrilla groups were to have disarmed by Monday - a deadline that will not be met.

But in making its offer to deal with the weapons issue, the IRA has gone further than ever before to take the gun out of Northern Ireland politics and end a cycle of violence that has seen more than 3,600 people killed in 30 years of terrorist "troubles."

Now, the pressure builds on the Ulster Unionists and Trimble, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in crafting the Good Friday accord.

If his party's ruling council rejects the deal to return to the local government, most analysts say that Trimble would be forced to resign, or that he could be toppled in a leadership contest. In March, he turned aside a leadership challenge with only 56 percent of the vote.

He faces a tough battle among the Ulster Unionist rank and file. Many in his party have been wavering on making any deals with Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, saying that if the IRA didn't hand in its guns, then no local government should be in power in the province.

"What we actually need to know and hear from the IRA is, are they going to decommission their weapons? We haven't had any clarification from the IRA," said Jeffrey Donaldson, a member of Parliament whose hard-line stance could make him a formidable foe to Trimble.

With so much at stake, leaders of other parties were careful to offer Trimble their backing even as they expressed disappointment with the delay in restoring home rule.

"I welcome this positive recommendation from David Trimble that he is prepared to go for this," said Martin McGuinness, chief negotiator for Sinn Fein.

Peter Mandelson, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, said Trimble "has been clarifying some issues and driving a hard bargain over others, and now he needs time to present the outcome to his party."

Mandelson said he is "confident" that Trimble "will be successful and that we will be able to restart the institutions after this short delay."

Later, in an interview with the BBC, Mandelson said Trimble "has worked like a Trojan to get the deal he has."

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