A leap for self rule in Belfast

Northern Ireland will form a long-delayed government this week, but

The Northern Ireland peace process, stalled for months in a dispute over the handover of paramilitary weapons, kicks into high gear this week.

On Saturday, David Trimble persuaded the ruling council of his pro-British Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), to form a power-sharing government with Sinn Fein, the political ally of the Irish Republican Army, before the IRA begins giving up its weapons. The UUP, the largest party representing majority Protestants, had previously insisted "no guns, no government."

While the compromise came with potentially troublesome strings attached, it set in motion a series of moves for the province to begin running its own affairs for the first time in 25 years.

Today, parties to the 1998 Good Friday peace accord will meet in Belfast to nominate a 10-member power-sharing council.

Sinn Fein will receive two ministerial posts alongside the UUP. Also taking part will be the radical pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the main party representing pro-Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland.

The two Sinn Fein representatives are expected to be Martin McGuinness, the party's chief negotiator, and Bairbre de Brun, a senior party member.

On Tuesday and Wednesday the British Parliament is to pass a bill devolving power to Belfast, while the Irish parliament is to vote formally to rescind its longstanding constitutional claim to authority over Northern Ireland.

On Thursday, the Northern Ireland assembly will convene, with Mr. Trimble as first minister. Under a compromise reached two weeks ago in talks chaired by former US Sen. George Mitchell, who mediated the Good Friday accord, the IRA is obligated "within hours" to name a go-between for talks on the handover of arms and explosives with Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, head of weapons decommissioning for Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein sources say Mr. McGuinness has been suggested as the go-between.

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson, the top British official in the province, yesterday told the BBC: "[Sinn Fein President] Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are two forward-looking politicians who have worked very hard to put in place this political strategy, and I think they should be given the benefit of the doubt."

Although the timetable looks straightforward, positions entrenched by 30 years of sectarian and political violence that have claimed some 3,600 lives will not disappear overnight. In 1974, a cross-party administration fell apart as Protestants and Catholics blamed each other for terrorist violence, and the British government assumed direct control in Belfast.

While President Clinton joined British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Premier Bertie Ahern in praising Trimble for putting his job on the line with Saturday's UUP vote, the 58 percent approval came at a price. Trimble promised party leaders to hold another meeting in February to review progress on the surrender of IRA arms.

Senior UUP delegate Arnold Hatch, a Trimble supporter, says he went into the meeting "prepared to be persuaded either way by sound arguments."

The atmosphere was "tense, with many passionate speeches," he says.

During a three-hour debate, Mr. Hatch says Trimble "began to get his way" when he vowed to resign from the provincial government if the IRA fails to begin disarming, adding that he had already signed a letter of resignation.

That, Trimble declared, would bring the peace process to a grinding halt.

In a challenge to the Sinn Fein president, Trimble went on television after the vote and said, "We have done our bit, Mr. Adams. It is over to you. We have jumped. You follow."

Sinn Fein leaders responded angrily, accusing the UUP of setting new deadlines and changing the terms of the Mitchell formula. In his own TV interview, McGuinness said, "I certainly think that talk of post-dated resignation letters ... is not planning for success, it is planning for failure.

"It is incumbent upon all of us now to put up the institutions, to make politics work, and for politicians ... to create the conditions and the circumstances which will see armed groups voluntarily destroy their weapons," he added.

In addition to Sinn Fein's objections, Trimble continues to face strong resistance within his own party, where defections have already begun. William Thompson, a member of the British Parliament, says he told the council the deal was "a betrayal of everything the UUP stands for."

"The result is a travesty," he says. "I refuse to work with people who have murdered our kith and kin, including my own friends. The minute Sinn Fein begins sharing power, I intend to resign membership of the UUP."

And when the Northern Ireland assembly meets on Thursday, and its ruling council begins to function, one of Trimble's fiercest critics can be counted on to swing into action. DUP leader the Rev. Ian Paisley, who has been hostile to the peace process from the start, is assured of a seat.

On Saturday he denounced the UUP vote as "an obscenity" that will allow "murderers" to take part in Northern Ireland's government "without a single bullet being surrendered."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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