In Northern Ireland, a setback for peace efforts

Britain suspended the province's Catholic/Protestant Assembly Monday.

Hopes for long-term reconciliation between Roman Catholics and Protestants were dealt a blow Monday, as Northern Ireland's power-sharing government was put on ice and Britain resumed ruling this troubled province.

This latest, and most serious, political crisis underlines the difficulty of finding a path to lasting peace.

Although no one expects a return to the height of the bloody 30-year period here known as The Troubles, police here are warning that the threat from dissident guerrilla groups – both Loyalist (who want to retain the link with Britain) and Republican (who want a single, united Ireland) – is higher now than at any stage since 1994 ceasefires.

Even a temporary return of British rule is distressing to most Catholics, while Protestants appear divided.

"Having locally elected ministers is far more dignified and democratic than having people ruling us from England who know little and probably care even less about us," says Eileen Howell, director of the Falls Community Council in mainly Catholic west Belfast. "We feel frustrated, angry – and very, very hurt because we put an awful lot of effort into making this work."

But Stuart McCartney, a Protestant community worker in a working-class area of north Belfast, says opinion there is split.

Some are disappointed because "they feel we had made great strides forwards, because we want local government, run by local people."

But others, he said, hail Britain's return and point fingers at Sinn Fein, the Catholic political party at the center of the scandal that triggered the crisis. "Both sides have to play honestly ... even children playing games understand that, and a commonality is that people don't think Sinn Fein were playing by the rules."

The spying scandal broke after an Oct. 4 police raid on the homes of four supporters of Sinn Fein, widely regarded as the political wing of the IRA, a clandestine Catholic paramilitary force. Police say they found documents including potential IRA targets ranging from prison officers to the British army commander here – and confidential communications between Britain and other parties in the Northern Ireland peace process. The four have since been charged.

The scandal prompted a threat by the pro-British Ulster Unionist Party to walk out in protest of Sinn Fein's continued participation in government. To keep the power-sharing effort from unraveling, London stepped in Monday – for the fourth time since February 2000.

Power sharing between Catholics and Protestants was the centerpiece of the Good Friday peace agreement, signed here in 1998.

For many Protestants, the current scandal, which some here call the "Irish Watergate," is proof that Sinn Fein was never serious about the peace process.

Many Catholics say that they suspect that the raid was a set-up, and that the Protestant side was never genuinely committed to sharing power.

Brian Feeney, college lecturer and author of "Sinn Fein – A Hundred Turbulent Years" says it's as though the Protestant and Catholic communities are living in "two parallel universes."

"They're like two people looking at the same thing happening, but seeing two completely different events," Prof. Feeney says. "Everyone on the nationalist (Catholic) side is suspicious of the police timing of the raids. Unionists, on the other hand, believe the police had good reason for making the arrests and see this as a worse betrayal [by the Catholic side] than they ever contemplated."

Sinn Fein denies the police allegations of spying. "What's the point of gathering political intelligence?" says the party leader, Gerry Adams, "unless I saw it. And I haven't."

The police have known of the claims against Sinn Fein members since last year. Sinn Fein accuses them of waiting until a particularly critical moment in the peace process before staging their raids, which came soon after two disputed "punishment attacks" on men who claimed the IRA was responsible. The raids also came on the same day that the trial of three Irishmen began in Colombia on charges of training FARC guerrillas there.

Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble, who had already set a deadline for January for IRA disbandment, now says he won't continue in government with Sinn Fein unless the IRA ceases to exist – a prospect few find imaginable in the short to medium term.

The Catholic paramilitary called a "cessation of all military operations" in August 1994 and has carried out two acts of decommissioning its weapons – a step many on both sides of the conflict thought they would never see.

But in the latest apparent sign that the outlawed group remains active, five Dublin men were charged Sunday with IRA membership after police allegedly caught them with masks, gloves, sledgehammers, ax handles, two-way radios, and handcuffs. Police said they had foiled an attempted IRA robbery or kidnapping.

"We have delivered the politics but they haven't delivered the peace," said Mr. Trimble, the senior Protestant in the Northern Irish coalition.

Slow resuscitation

Few say the assembly can be revived before the middle of next year, after possibly divisive May 2003 elections that could make matters even worse. The main beneficiaries of the government's suspension may be those who opposed the 1998 peace agreement, including the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which in May could outstrip its moderate rival, the Ulster Unionists. This prospect is of such huge potential damage to the peace process, observers say, that the British government might cancel the elections, potentially leading to a risky political stalemate. The mainly Protestant, and pro-British DUP's leader, Ian Paisley, has described the 1998 peace accord as "history."

Sinn Fein leader Adams, says, however, that although "in the short term, the peace process may seem doomed – in the long-term it will just have to be put together again. Change can be delayed and diverted, but it cannot be prevented."

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