Reversal in momentum of N. Ireland peace process

Protestant Unionists suspicious of IRA promises to disarm.

A carefully choreographed effort to revive Northern Ireland's stalled peace process fell dramatically out of kilter Tuesday night, despite the biggest act of disarmament ever by the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

A series of initiatives aimed at getting feuding Catholics and Protestants to share power in a provincial government again culminated in bewilderment and deep disappointment when a key Protestant party refused to move in step and sign up to the deal.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had flown to Belfast specifically to trumpet the breakthrough, was forced to put a brave face on the sudden reversal, which he described as a "glitch" that would take a little time to resolve.

But analysts and political leaders had warned all along that the deal might be a hard sell to Protestant unionists, who have long been suspicious of republican disarmament.

Earlier, the outlook had appeared more rosy, as the British government called elections for Nov. 26 on the strength of a major new commitment by the IRA to decommission the arsenal it built up during 30 years of sectarian conflict that left more than 3,000 people dead.

The hope remains that such elections would pave the way for the revival of local government by Catholic republicans, who favour unification with Ireland, and Protestant unionists - who support British rule.

A Northern Ireland-based government has been repeatedly suspended over the past four years because of chronic mistrust between the two sides.

The chief stumbling block between the two communities is the arsenal that republicans have still to decommission, almost 10 years after they first called a cease-fire.

Yet on Tuesday, the IRA unveiled their most serious act yet in scrapping its weaponry. In one of its deliberately terse, cryptic statements that revealed that "a further act of putting arms beyond use has taken place."

If that wasn't enough for suspicious Protestants, then the international overseer monitoring the disarmament, Canadian general John de Chastelain, reported that the quantity of arms involved was the largest yet.

The IRA statement was accompanied by comments from Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, who pledged "total and absolute commitment" to peace and rapprochement. "Sinn Fein wants to see all guns taken out of Irish society," he said.

But unionists later emerged to criticize the lack of transparency of the decommissioning, which like two previous acts were carried out secretively and not publicly quantified. Ulster Unionist chief David Trimble said the entire process was now effectively back on hold.

The entire day was typical of recent titanic efforts to turn Northern Ireland from a rancorous society steeped in violence to a peaceful, prosperous, autonomous province.

Suspicions divide not only the two communities, but factions within them as well, leaving political leaders like Mr Trimble with a delicate task to move in step with republicans while not alienating his own support, analysts say. The peace process has assumed a distinctly stop-start nature as a result.

"There is a desire for peace, it's just a question on what terms," says Paul Hainsworth, a senior lecturer at the University of Ulster.

"There has been a climate of agreement created in the past few weeks," he adds, noting that the summer "marching season," when sectarian tensions usually reach a boiling point, had passed relatively peacefully this year, allowing peacemakers on all sides to operate in the kind of confident, constructive atmosphere so often lacking in Northern Ireland.

But even beyond disarmament, a host of unresolved disputes still bedevils the process, such as the status of IRA fugitives, policing in the province, and the menace posed by disaffected republicans such as the so-called "Real IRA."

And even if the deal can be shored up to allow elections to take place, the outcome of the election itself could yet upset the process.

The second-largest pro-British party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), for example, is opposed to the peace process, preferring direct rule from London.

If it bests the Ulster Unionists in elections and finds itself a leader in the new executive, "the process is dead," says Sydney Elliott of Queen's University in Belfast.

"If Sinn Fein and the DUP are first and second, then they won't work together," he adds. "Whatever efforts have been made [Tuesday] would probably have been wasted."

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