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Britain To Suspend Belfast Rule If IRA Does Not Disarm

By Marjorie Miller

The Northern Ireland peace process unraveled further on Thursday as the British government announced that it would resume direct rule over the province within days unless the Irish Republican Army takes steps to disarm.

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson told the House of Commons that he would introduce legislation Friday to suspend Belfast’s 2-month-old government and transfer power back to London.

Trying to buy time for 11th-hour negotiations, Mandelson said it would take several days to implement the legislation, and that the process could be halted immediately if the IRA were to budge.

Prime Minister Tony Blair met with his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, for about two hours late Thursday hoping that Ahern might have some advances to report after daylong talks with the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein. But afterward, the two leaders acknowledged their efforts had fallen short so far.

A sudden change of heart by the IRA seemed improbable. Sinn Fein leaders angrily accused the British government and Northern Ireland’s First Minister David Trimble of violating the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

“If the institutions are suspended, it’s the greatest disaster to befall Ireland in the last 100 years, and I hope that doesn’t happen,” Sinn Fein negotiator Martin McGuinness told reporters in Belfast.

McGuinness is education minister in the Protestant-Catholic government of Northern Ireland that was formed in December after 25 years of British rule and a sectarian war between pro-British Protestants and Catholic nationalists who want the province united with the Irish Republic.

Britain’s move to retake power from Belfast was the gravest setback yet in the peace process, although it was intended to stave off what the government considers to be an even worse outcome -- Trimble’s resignation.

Trimble heads the Ulster Unionist Party and has been the most outspoken Protestant leader in support of the peace agreement. But he only won his party’s backing to enter a power-sharing government with Sinn Fein last November by promising to quit the Cabinet if IRA guns were not laid on the table by February. He gave party leaders a post-dated resignation letter.

The British government fears that if Trimble resigns as first minister, the divided unionists may not vote for him again and the peace process would collapse permanently.

On Monday, a commission set up under the peace accord issued a report to the British and Irish governments stating that paramilitaries had not begun to decommission weapons.

Mandelson delivered the commission’s message to a grim House of Commons, whose Labor and Tory members refrained from their usual political sparing to present a united front.

“This is unacceptable. Notably in the case of the IRA, it has to be clear that decommissioning is going to happen,” Mandelson said.

Trimble welcomed the planned suspension and indicated he would give the government a few more days to try to resolve the crisis. He said the IRA’s refusal to start disarming or even lay out how it planned to do so amounted to a “contemptuous response” to the peace process.