Irish Protestants deliver IRA ultimatum

Ulster Unionists threaten to shut down government


BELFAST, Northern Ireland - Northern Ireland's main Protestant party announced yesterday that it would end the Protestant-Catholic power-sharing government set up by the province's peace agreement unless the Irish Republican Army makes credible moves by January to disband and disarm.

David Trimble, the party's leader and the first minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, emerged from a showdown with his 860-member Ulster Unionist Party governing council to say that he and his party members were "fed up" with the "dilatory and limited response" that Prime Minister Tony Blair and the British government gave their "very real concerns" about the IRA and the participation in government of its political wing, Sinn Fein.

"The game is up," said Jeffrey Donaldson, a hard-line dissident whose challenge to Trimble during the three-hour closed session forced the leader to toughen his approach. "We will not sit in government with unreconstructed terrorists."

Trimble said the party would immediately withdraw from several so-called North-South bodies that the agreement established to forge links between the Northern Ireland government and the government of Ireland. He said a decision to bring down the whole Northern Ireland Assembly would be made at a Jan. 18 meeting of the governing council and would be based on whether it had been "demonstrably established" that the IRA was making "a real and genuine transition that is proceeding to a conclusion." In answer to a question, he explained that the language meant dismantlement and disarmament.

The resignation of Trimble and the other Ulster Unionist ministers would effectively topple the government because it functions under arrangements requiring balanced voting from Protestant and Catholic parties. Britain would then have the option of scheduling elections in March or reinstituting direct rule from London.

Yesterday's meeting was called by Donaldson and his hard-line followers in the party who have been opponents of the Northern Ireland peace accord from its beginning in 1998.

It was the ninth such meeting in which Trimble, each time by narrowing margins, has succeeded in keeping leadership of the party and, by extension, in seeing that the power-sharing government he leads stays up and running. Yesterday was the first time he had to give in so visibly to his critics.

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