Home rule restored in N. Ireland

Ulster Unionists narrowly vote to share government

Make-or-break ballot

Pressure on IRA to disarm, open bunkers to inspectors

May 28, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELFAST, Northern Ireland - Divided yet determined to preserve Northern Ireland's landmark 1998 peace accord, the Ulster Unionists narrowly agreed yesterday to return to a power-sharing local government of Protestants and Roman Catholics.

Within hours of the make-or-break ballot that had political careers and peace on the line, Britain announced that home rule would be restored in the province as of midnight tomorrow.

David Trimble, leader of the Protestant, pro-British Ulster Unionists, will regain power as first minister in a government that includes his fiercest foes representing Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

By a vote of 459 to 403, the Ulster Unionists' council voted to follow Trimble's recommendation to return to the fledgling government that Britain suspended in February after an impasse over getting guerrilla groups to turn in weapons.

The Ulster Unionists effectively put the pressure back on the IRA, as they responded to the paramilitary organization's announcement May 6 to put weapons "beyond use" and open its secret arms bunkers to independent inspectors.

"It is perfectly obvious that we have stretched ourselves under the circumstances," Trimble said. "It is patently obvious promises must be delivered."

Leaders in Washington and London sought to back the Ulster Unionists' bold move, with President Clinton saying in a written statement, "The wind is back in the sails of peace in Northern Ireland."

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson signed the order to transfer power from the British Parliament in London to the local executive and assembly in Belfast, and said the province "has a second chance to get it right."

"No one is pretending that all our difficulties have disappeared, all our problems have been solved," he said. "There will be tensions in the future, I am sure, but we now have the institutions within which to deal with these difficulties, to learn how to resolve those that can be, and to respect our diversity."

Support for the Ulster Unionist vote came from other quarters as well, with Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams calling it "the right decision."

The last two years of Northern Ireland's often troubled peace process have been filled with decisive moments.

But this was truly a defining vote.

Trimble, the law professor turned Nobel Peace laureate, faced the fight of his life. Had the Ulster Unionists turned down the IRA's latest initiative, the Trimble era would have come crashing to an end with Trimble probably forced to resign.

The 1998 Good Friday peace accord, which provided a new political platform for the province, also hung in the balance. A "no" vote by the Ulster Unionists would have plunged the province into uncertainty after the seeming end of a 30-year terror war that has left 3,600 dead.

After one week of relentless, behind-the-scenes campaigning to shore up his fragile base, Trimble and the party held their three-hour debate behind closed doors at the glistening Waterfront Hall. From the heart of the six counties that make up Northern Ireland came the party faithful: farmers, doctors, and lawyers, as well as a sprinkling of blue-collar workers from Belfast.

The stage was set for a night performance of Verdi's opera "Aida," a tale of love, bravery and treachery that ends with the hero and his lover buried alive. Amid the theatrical trappings of ancient Egyptian temples and mummies, the staunch defenders of British rule engaged in a heated debate in which about 30 members spoke.

Britain's Press Association reported that speakers dealt with three issues - guerrilla disarmament, policing and flags. Unionists are adamant that the British flag should continue to fly from government buildings. They are also resistant to changing the name of the local police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Trimble was essentially facing off against his party's hard-liners - so-called anti-agreement voters - and young Turks, led by Jeffrey Donaldson. The hard-liners sought to have the party live up to an old pledge that it wouldn't enter into a government until the IRA started to give up guns.

According to Michael McGimpsey, a Trimble loyalist, the leader's speech was "emotional" and turned the tide.

"Common sense prevailed," McGimpsey said. "The heart says you can't trust these guys [the IRA]. The head says you have to try."

Willy Lamrock, another Trimble supporter, said the leader was "playing for high stakes, not only for the Ulster Unionists but for the future of the country."

But, according to William Ross Jr., whose father is a leading hard-liner, the vote to go back into government was a mistake.`The Ulster Unionist Party is headed for disaster," he said.

The party rebels made it clear they won't go away quietly, especially if the IRA doesn't disarm, a prospect that could lead to the Ulster Unionist council's being called on again to offer its support or rejection of the peace process.

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