Belfast's tightrope walk to peace

This week is the deadline to form a regional Cabinet. Its Protestantleader faces pressure on Sinn Fein seats.

David Trimble knows that in Northern Ireland, politics deadlines have an ingrained habit of slipping.

But this week the leader of the province's pro-British Protestant majority and designated first minister of a new power-sharing Cabinet in Belfast also knows that delay is no longer a serious option in the path toward ending 30 years of civil and sectarian violence.

For Mr. Trimble - and for Northern Ireland - it is crunch time.

This seasoned politician and astute lawyer must decide between two sets of conflicting pressures. He must either agree to further a peace process endorsed by the London and Dublin governments and backed by the Clinton administration, or reject it because of opposition from his own supporters.

Close associates confirm privately that Trimble would like the peace process to move forward, with him as head of a government involving Northern Ireland's two traditionally hostile religious communities.

At Easter last year, Trimble signed up to a landmark peace agreement that promised to make such a government possible. In so doing, he won the Nobel Peace Prize but split his own Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) down the middle.

One faction (believed to be the minority) finds it difficult to contemplate sharing power with Catholics under any circumstances, fearing if that happens the province might eventually end up being united with Ireland.

The other is profoundly suspicious of Irish Republican Army intentions. It demands cast-iron guarantees that if the IRA's political ally, Sinn Fein, is allowed a place in the yet-to-be-formed Belfast government, the government must be dissolved if the IRA subsequently fails to disarm.

So far, the group has refused to hand over its weapons. Sinn Fein has hinted that may change if it is allowed to join the Belfast government.

More than 70 percent of Northern Ireland voters approved last year's peace agreement in a referendum, but according to political analyst David McKittrick, by accepting the document Trimble "unleashed pressures within the Protestant community that are making it excruciatingly difficult for him to implement it."

This was evident as 30,000 members and supporters of the Protestant Orange Order paraded in Belfast July 12. The date marks the anniversary of English Protestant King William of Orange's victory over the ousted Catholic King James more than three centuries ago.

So long as the issue of arms decommissioning is unresolved, says Mr. McKittrick, Protestant concerns will persist, and Trimble will be "caught between hopes of peace and fears of deception."

If Trimble plunges for the former and disregards the latter, the consensus among analysts and commentators on both sides of Northern Ireland's political divide is that he will be challenged for the leadership of the UUP and may well lose.

Trimble, says Frank Millar, a senior writer for the Dublin-based Irish Times, "will be damned by some if he sticks with the peace process and damned by others if he rejects it."

A further pressure on Trimble comes from the Rev. Ian Paisley's small but vociferous Democratic Unionist Party, which rejects the peace agreement in its entirety.

As Trimble wrestled with this dilemma, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was setting a cracking pace in a bid to end nearly 30 years of direct rule of Northern Ireland from London.

Under an ultratight Blair timetable, July 14 and 15 will see emergency legislation for establishing a power-sharing Cabinet in Belfast pass through both houses of the British Parliament.

Called the "fail-safe bill," it is intended to provide a formula for ensuring that all terrorist organizations decommission their weapons by May 2000, as promised in last year's peace accord.

By July 16, with the bill passed into law, Mr. Blair hopes it will be possible for two members of Sinn Fein to join a Belfast Cabinet headed by Trimble, and by next week for Northern Ireland to have its own devolved government up and running.

As pressures piled up, however, Trimble reaffirmed July 13 that he still had "real problems" with Blair's fail-safe arrangements.

As the House of Commons prepared to debate the bill, the UUP leader announced that he would be putting forward several amendments jointly with the British Conservative opposition. Conservative leader William Hague said his party "shared Trimble's concerns."

Trimble said he wanted a specific clause guaranteeing that if the IRA fails to disarm, Sinn Fein members would be automatically thrown out of the Belfast government.

Blair's draft bill stops well short of such a commitment. It states that if any paramilitary organization fails to decommission, the entire Northern Ireland government would be suspended. The province's assembly would then debate the matter, the London and Dublin governments would consult, and the assembly would vote to set up a new government.

Ken Maginnis, Trimble's security spokesman, has also raised another problem. He said Trimble wanted the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), Northern Ireland's main Catholic group, to promise it would support Sinn Fein's exclusion from the government if the IRA fails to disarm.

SDLP leader John Hume, an architect with Trimble of last year's peace agreement, has so far refused to give such an assurance. He fears that a Northern Ireland government without Sinn Fein, but containing SDLP ministers, would have a built-in Protestant majority.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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