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Northern Ireland Protestants Pull Out of Power Sharing Pacts

By Michael Dobbs

and Adi Bloom

Northern Ireland Protestant politicians announced Thursday they were pulling out of a power-sharing arrangement with Catholics to protest the failure of the Irish Republican Army para-military movement to surrender its weapons.

Political analysts interpreted the announcement as a tactical move designed to put pressure on the IRA to start disarming. But it could lead to the suspension of Northern Ireland’s three-year-old experiment in self-government and the reimposition of direct rule from London.

“It is well past time for Republicans to act,” said David Trimble, leader of the pro-British Ulster Unionist Party, referring to protracted negotiations with IRA leaders on “decommissioning” of weapons. “It is up to them and no one else.”

Thursday’s decision by the Ulster Unionists to pull their ministers out of the coalition government set up in the wake of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord marks a setback to British efforts to return Northern Ireland to self-rule. It followed Trimble’s own resignation as Northern Ireland’s first minister in July because of an earlier deadlock on decommissioning.

Trimble said that all three Ulster Unionist ministers were withdrawing from the Northern Ireland executive, or government, along with two ministers representing the allied Democratic Unionist Party.

Under constitutional arrangements accepted by all sides, the British government now has seven days to decide whether to order fresh elections in the province or to suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly for an indefinite period. Intensive negotiations are likely over the next week in an attempt to find a compromise.

Leaders of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, which favors union with the Irish Republic, have hinted during the past few days that they are moving toward an agreement on giving up their weapons. As in the past, however, rumors of progress in the backstage negotiations have alternated with reports of deadlock.

Trimble held private talks with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams earlier Thursday, but both sides were tight-lipped about their discussions. Sinn Fein earlier said that it was working with both the British and Irish governments and the Ulster Unionists to end the stalemate in the peace process.

Under the Good Friday agreement, all parliamentary groups in Northern Ireland are required to hand in all their weapons as part of the power-sharing agreement between republicans and loyalists. A spokesman for the Ulster Unionist Party, Philip Robinson, said that “not one bullet, not one gun, not one ounce of Semtex,” the plastic explosive, has been handed over by the IRA as a result of the agreement.

Under the rules for power-sharing in the assembly, the Northern Ireland government cannot formally meet without unionist ministers present.