New deadline for N. Ireland peace

Following Trimble's resignation July 1, self-rule assembly has six weeks to find a new leader.

A scramble is under way in Northern Ireland, where flickering hopes for peace appeared to dim once again with yesterday's resignation of David Trimble, first minister of the power-sharing self-rule government.

Talks aimed at resolving the latest crisis are due to begin this week to prevent the collapse of the three-year-old government and the landmark Good Friday Peace Accord that made it possible.

The 1998 agreement committed the IRA and other paramilitary groups to decommission their weapons by May 2000, a deadline Mr. Trimble had extended. But the renewed effort at talks comes at a difficult time: Northern Ireland's marching season - when Protestant groups mark historic military victories over Catholics - is about to start, and follows British elections in June that gave a boost to hard-line politicians.

Among those representing Northern Ireland's Protestant majority, the Nobel Prize-winning Trimble is regarded the most reasonable and supportive of the peace accord.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who with Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern had worked to avert the political crisis, vowed yesterday to lead a new round of negotiations. "Like David [Trimble], I too want to see the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement in all its aspects, and that will be our aim in the talks," Mr. Blair said.

The next objective is to prevent collapse of Northern Ireland's power-sharing government altogether. The Good Friday peace agreement allows six weeks - until Aug. 12 - for the Northern Irish Assembly to chose a new first minister, otherwise the accord will be suspended and the peace process effectively at an end.

Refusing to hand over weapons, Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA's political ally, Sinn Fein, said "The threat to this process does not come from the IRA. The threat comes from those who will resign rather than face up to their responsibilities."

While the IRA permitted three unprecedented inspections of their arsenal by an international body, there is a widespread sense across Northern Ireland's majority Protestant community that this is not enough and that it is they who have made all of the major concessions so far.

IRA members, imprisoned for bombings, shootings and other crimes, have received amnesties.

The largely Protestant police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, is being renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and will become more democratically accountable and recruit more heavily from the minority Catholic community. British Army bases in the province have been dismantled and troop numbers reduced.

As Debbi Keatley, a website designer in Belfast from a Protestant background, put it, "We feel we've done our bit, but there's been nothing in return."

Nonetheless, the IRA notes that its members have acted with restraint, keeping to a 1998 cease-fire even as smaller extremist groups on both sides that avowedly oppose peace continue to perpetrate violence. Colin Harvey, a native of Northern Ireland and professor of human rights law at Leeds University, also notes: "The IRA doesn't respond well to ultimatums." Prof. Harvey sees the IRA's decentralized structure as another potential source of difficulty. "Even if the organization's leadership were willing to begin decommissioning, it would have a challenge in convincing its footsoldiers, who see such a policy as surrender."

Indeed, Michelle Gildernew, a Sinn Fein politician elected to the British Parliament in June, said decommissioning would not take place until Northern Ireland was reunited with its southern neighbor - the Republic of Ireland - an outcome opposed by majority Protestants that is the IRA's long-term objective.

Internal divisions are just as strong among the mainly Protestant Unionists, who wish to retain the link with Britain. Trimble had been attacked within his Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) with growing vehemence for making too many concessions to Sinn Fein, which was given the health and education ministries.

The June elections only worsened things for Trimble. There was a marked, and unexpected, shift from his UUP and the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) to the harder-line Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of the Rev. Ian Paisley. The results indicate that many in both communities feel the peace process has not delivered.

In some ways, Trimble's departure could not have come at a worse time. Summer is Northern Ireland's marching season. In a holdover from its troubled past, hard-line Unionist groups parade wearing sashes behind ancient banners to pipe and drum bands. It would constitute a quaint tradition, except some marches through Catholic areas regularly lead to violence that police can barely control.

Lord Dubs, a former British Minister for Northern Ireland, declared in the House of Lords in London on Thursday: "I am concerned that, with the marching season about to begin, a period of political instability, or indeed a political vacuum, could be highly dangerous." Hardliners from both sides gave a taste of what may be in store on Saturday night, clashing on the streets of Belfast.

Yet even as the tension ratchets up in time to the practice drum beats, there is also reason for hope. Northern Ireland's economy is stronger than ever and many are loathe to jeopardize this. Immigrants have even been attracted from Eastern Europe, with locals joking that the Kosovars seem particularly able to adapt to the social divisions they find.

As Harvey noted, now that Trimble's ultimatum is gone, the IRA may be more amenable to compromise. And in Belfast, Ms. Keatley describes how "the Good Friday agreement raised everybody's expectations. And they're not quite dead yet. The idea of going back to direct rule [by London] is appalling to all of us."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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