Disarmament has long been one of the thorniest - and most crucial - elements to peace in Northern Ireland. And, it's causing a pause in the peace process there once again.
The British government is threatening to reimpose direct rule over Northern Ireland on Friday, unless the Irish Republican Army (IRA) agrees to demonstrate some progress in the surrender of its arms within the next three or four days.
London and Dublin, together with moderate politicians in Northern Ireland, are trying to persuade the two sides to give ground in the interest of letting the peace process proceed. But the atmosphere is one of mutual recrimination and what analysts are calling "the politics of blame."
The near-collapse of the peace process, this time, is the result of a report issued last week by Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, head of the international commission overseeing disarmament as part of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord. The report indicated that none of the various paramilitaries - Protestant or Catholic - had begun to disarm. But the report focused most criticism on the IRA, because it is by far the largest, most strident, and well-armed of the groups.
This shines a spotlight on the lingering, deep mistrust between the province's pro-British Protestant political leaders and the IRA. Protestants are demanding that the IRA surrender its weapons on a tight timetable, and are claiming that a failure to do so would make it impossible for the newly set-up democratic institutions there to function properly.
Those who oppose British rule are digging in their heels, arguing that the cease-fire in Northern Ireland is still holding, that the IRA's intentions are peaceful, and that there is no need to rush disarmament.
Over the weekend, the IRA released a statement that indicates it may be willing to some form of compromise on the deadline set last Wednesday by Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson, after days of frantic behind-the-scenes negotiations failed to break a deadlock on the key issue of decommissioning terrorist weapons.
"We recognize that the issue of arms needs to be dealt with in an acceptable way, and this is a necessary objective of a genuine peace process," the statement said.
Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political ally, is quoted by the Ireland on Sunday newspaper as saying: "I am convinced, after more than a week of exhaustive discussions, that this crisis can be resolved."
"I believe that decommissioning is an essential part of the peace process. I believe it is achievable, but not in the way that is currently being demanded," Mr. Adams added.
Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the mainly Catholic and pro-Ireland Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), is insisting that the agreement requires that an arms handover be completed by May 22, not immediately. But he concedes that by showing no sign at all that it is willing to decommission weapons, the IRA is "making it extremely hard for everyone to see a way forward."
Trimble threatens to resign
Meanwhile David Trimble, leader of the pro-British Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the province's main Protestant political group, threatened to resign his leadership post in the nine-week-old Northern Ireland government.
Mr. Trimble cited the IRA's "total refusal" to fulfill the terms of the Good Friday accord by decommissioning weapons. Trimble has signed a post-dated letter of resignation, which he says he is "ready to activate at any time."
Mr. Mandelson told the House of Commons Thursday that the IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups were ignoring the wishes of the Irish people, who had voted by large majorities in favor of the peace process proceeding. But there was little doubt that he was placing most of the blame on the IRA, which, analysts say, may have been a way to buy some time. By siding with the unionists, he may have prevented Trimble's immediate resignation. And by not immediately suspending the government, he gave the IRA time to provide details on disarmament plans.
On Friday, Mandelson published a bill that, if enacted, will enable London to resume direct rule over Northern Ireland. The bill is due to be debated on Tuesday and Wednesday, passed by Parliament on Thursday, and signed by Queen Elizabeth II on Friday.
Moderate politicians, however, saw some possibility of maneuver if Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern could get the two sides to take a close look at the Good Friday agreement.
According to British security sources, the IRA has an estimated 1,000 rifles, 500 handguns, several tons of semtex explosive, 50 heavy-duty machine guns, several rocket launchers, and large quantities of ammunition. Much of the equipment is believed hidden in dumps in Ireland just south of the Northern Ireland border.
The aim of the decommissioning agency set up under the Good Friday agreement and headed by General de Chastelain has been to secure the handover or destruction of at least part of the IRA arsenal, and to work out a decommissioning timetable for the rest.
As last-ditch efforts intensified by all concerned with the peace process to rescue it from collapse, one thing appeared certain: Former US Sen. George Mitchell, who over five years has helped to dig the process out of several crises, will not be available on this occasion.
In the latest issue of Saga magazine, Mr. Mitchell says: "My role is complete."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society