By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Good Friday week 1999 is the new deadline for devolving power from Westminster to a new power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland. The change was announced Monday after it became clear that the March 10 deadline would collapse under sustained unionist pressure for IRA arms decommissioning.
The decision came as Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams warned that the arms issue has plunged the peace process into "crisis — big time." Adams was also informed last week of a plot against his life from dissident republicans.
British Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam said Monday that the new deadline was firm. She cited the likelihood of further complications developing with the onset of the marching season and the start of the campaign for the European elections in June.
In the week beginning March 29, she said, she would call an Assembly meeting that would automatically trigger the so-called "d’Hondt" system of parceling out ministerial places. After that, it would be up to the Assembly parties to approve the arrangements.
Mowlam said she hopes the parties will reach agreement during their visit to Washington for St. Patrick’s Day. In the informal meetings that would take place then, she said, she hoped confidence would build and the decommissioning obstacle be resolved.
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Although she refused to contemplate failure, Mowlam admitted she had "no Plan B" and accepted that a collapse was possible. "It’s not me creating a collapse of the process or starting a dangerous period; it’s in the parties’ hands," she said.
"We can’t keep putting this off. I shall call a meeting of the Assembly no later than the week beginning March 29. This gives the parties the time and space to find a way forward."
"Big time" crisis
Sinn Fein has voiced concern and disappointment at the failure to meet the March 10 deadline. With the peace process seemingly stumbling toward disaster, Sinn Fein’s Adams, accused David Trimble, Ulster Unionist leader, of trying to force the IRA "back to war."
"The peace process is in crisis — big time" said Adams, saying that destroying it was the unionist "game plan." He appealed to republicans not to be blinded by their frustrations and pledged himself to do all he could to prevent the IRA cease-fire breaking down.
Meanwhile, the RUC warned Adams of a threat to his life from dissident republicans. Adams’s solicitor, Barra McGrory, was contacted at the weekend and told of the threat by a senior RUC officer.
On Adams’s return from Australia, the RUC tried to make direct contact him, and then spoke to McGrory, who was contacted twice by what’s described as "a very senior RUC officer," once last Friday and again on Sunday.
He has confirmed that he was given information of a perceived threat against his client’s life and that he had passed this on to Adams. Sinn Fein said the threat is being taken seriously and that security around their president has been stepped up as a result.
In his first major statement on the peace process since his return from Australia, Adams said Sinn Fein is "earnestly and seriously striving to achieve decommissioning, but it cannot be a precondition."
Breaking a deadline at the unionists’ behest was a bad move, he said, claiming that the British and Irish governments appeared mesmerized by Trimble’s threats to walk out.
Seamus Mallon, the deputy first minister, made repeated attempts during the week to try to break the stalemate. He appealed to the IRA to soften its stated position on disarming, repeating his earlier appeal to republicans, in the interests of the people and of peace, to moderate their position.
He also asked the Ulster Unionists not to adopt an absolutist position on decommissioning, saying if they did so they risked the entire process.