Rift over disarming IRA remains unsettled

But N. Ireland will hold Nov. election as planned


LONDON - The British and Irish governments acknowledged yesterday that they had been unable to resolve a pre-election dispute over the disarming of the Irish Republican Army but confirmed that next month's vote for the Northern Ireland Assembly would go ahead as planned.

The assembly, created by the 1998 Northern Ireland peace agreement to apportion power between the Protestant majority and the Catholic minority, has been suspended for a year, and intensive efforts had gone into reviving it before the election Nov. 26.

Those efforts suffered a major collapse in Belfast a week ago when a carefully sequenced series of announcements of political progress from British Prime Minister Tony Blair; his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern; and leaders of the two communities failed to calm concern over IRA weapons.

Negotiations to restore the momentum continued until Monday night when David Trimble, leader of the largest Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, said he saw no way to patch up his differences with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, in advance of the vote.

It was Trimble who had called a halt to last week's unfolding events because he found the description issued that day of a new IRA act of disarmament to be too shrouded in secrecy.

Gen. John de Chastelain, head of the panel supervising the retirement of paramilitary arms, was able to characterize the destruction of IRA weapons as more far reaching than two previous instances. But he was unable to provide the kind of detail that Trimble said he needed to convince doubters in his party of the IRA's peaceful intentions.

De Chastelain said he was bound by pledges of confidentiality invoked legally by the IRA. The British and Irish, the guarantors of the peace plan, set out to persuade the IRA to release the general from the confidentiality requirement but did not succeed.

Trimble's unwillingness to accept the IRA terms means that he will not campaign on a platform of agreeing to revive the power-sharing government that his Ulster Unionists once participated in with Sinn Fein. But the British government said London and Dublin would work with all the parties after the election to achieve that goal, and it said progress in past weeks gave them cause for optimism.

The elections are being held against a backdrop of greatly diminished faith in the peace agreement among Protestants because of what they perceive as the IRA's persistent refusal to give up its arsenal. Their common complaint is that Sinn Fein should not be permitted to participate in the government while its IRA associates stay armed.

Sinn Fein says the arms have remained "silent" during years of cease-fire, and Gerry Adams, the party president, said last week that Sinn Fein was fully committed to peace and nonviolence - a phrase the IRA then endorsed as expressing its view.

Blair's spokesman hailed these developments yesterday as "major steps forward taken by the republican movement" and said they promised progress.

But the British regard Trimble as an essential figure in the pursuit of a political settlement in Northern Ireland because he has proved capable in the past of persuading his Protestant supporters to cooperate with Sinn Fein.

He is under attack from hard-liners in his party and in the Democratic Unionist Party of the Rev. Ian Paisley, who believe he has been too trusting of Sinn Fein. They are expected to pick up influence in the elections, and the only way Trimble believes he can combat them is to show his toughness.

Britain fears that Trimble could be victimized by a Protestant electorate that has become less enthusiastic about the peace settlement. While expressing disappointment at the turn of events brought about by him, the British statement praised Trimble for his "lengthy and constructive engagement."

Under its operating formula, the Northern Ireland Assembly cannot function unless both sides agree to work together. Election of the hard-liners, who call themselves "anti-agreement" and have vowed not to cooperate with Sinn Fein, would keep the power-sharing legislature inactive.

Paisley's followers argue that the agreement must be renegotiated, but the Downing Street statement yesterday emphatically refuted that thinking.

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