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Protestant Leader Refuses To Back Irish Peace Accord

By Julie Tamaki
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- London

The Northern Ireland peace process was plunged back into a morass Tuesday after the province’s largest Protestant party refused to back a last-ditch effort by the British and Irish governments to rescue a key accord.

The lack of progress emerged as party leaders on all sides engaged in a fresh round of political posturing. They did so as a deadline approaches that could result in the suspension of the region’s power-sharing government -- a setback that British and Irish officials are desperately trying to avoid.

The two governments floated a peace package last week aimed at compelling the outlawed Irish Republican Army to begin disarming. Its failure to do so thus far led to the July 1 resignation of Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble as first minister of the province’s chief power-sharing body, the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Resolving the crisis triggered by Trimble’s resignation is viewed as crucial to salvaging the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which seeks to end the conflict that has divided Protestants and Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland for decades. The former want to remain part of Britain; the latter want to be part of Ireland.

Trimble made clear Tuesday that the British-Irish proposals were not enough to garner his party’s support for the package -- at least not for now -- because, among other things, the blueprint has yet to result in the IRA’s destroying its weapons.

“We have seen a step by republicans, but of course it falls far short of what we need, which is to see decommissioning actually begin,” Trimble said, referring to Monday’s announcement by an international disarmament commission that the IRA had proposed a method for putting its weapons beyond reach.

Trimble’s remarks, in turn, unleashed a fresh round of finger-pointing.

Martin McGuinness, the chief negotiator for Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, described Trimble’s position as the “biggest blunder of all.” He accused the Protestant leader of being an obstructionist bent on undermining the international commission.

“Can anyone put their hand on their heart and say that David Trimble’s contribution to all of this has been for the good, in terms of trying to bring about decommissioning?” McGuinness asked a crowd at a news briefing. “I would argue he has achieved the total opposite.”

Further complicating matters, leaders of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, the moderate Catholic nationalist element in Northern Ireland’s coalition government, stopped short of fully endorsing the British-Irish peace package.

Seamus Mallon, a senior SDLP figure, said his group cannot back the policing reforms contained in the package until it is able to carefully study a detailed implementation plan. The party has not been provided with a copy of the plan but was given what leaders described as 30 minutes to study its 175 sections.

“I would not buy a house on those conditions. I wouldn’t buy a motor car on those conditions. I wouldn’t even buy my lunch on those conditions,” Mallon said.

The SDLP’s support of the police reform proposals, which include integrating Catholics into a revamped provincial force, is viewed as crucial because of the influence the group has on young Catholics, who will be needed to join the force for it to succeed.