By Anne Cadwallader in Belfast and Andrew Bushe in Dublin
A week from now, Northern Ireland could be on the brink of a power-sharing executive, governing in Belfast with authority devolved from London.
It’s a scenario that hinges on a secret ballot at this Saturday’s meeting of the 858-member Ulster Unionist Council. The meeting will, in essence, decide whether to support Ulster Unionist Party Leader David Trimble’s decision to agree to go into government with Sinn Féin.
Meanwhile, in the run-up to possible devolution, hard-line republicans are facing a clampdown. In Dublin on Tuesday, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern delivered a strong warning to those who might continue to engage in military activity and threaten the peace process.
He said he would enforce the draconian anti-terrorist laws in the amended Offenses Against the State Act introduced after the August 1998 Omagh massacre "in the toughest way possible."
Ahern said that vigorous preemptive action would be taken against the "handful" of dissidents.
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Although most attention has centered on Trimble’s problems, Sinn Féin has its own internal concerns, as evidenced by its hurriedly convened árd comhairle meeting in Dublin today.
Sinn Féin is deeply concerned that, fearful of the UUP rebelling against its leader, the British government will make key concessions to him, including a default mechanism to penalize republicans, between now and Saturday.
Members of the Sinn Féin árd comhairle were joined by all the party’s elected representatives, from both sides of the border, and its regional managers for a question-and-answer session with the party president, Gerry Adams.
The Ulster Unionist Council on Saturday, taken with Sinn Féin’s emergency meeting, shows the depth of doubt and concern within both the unionist and republican communities at the deal hammered out between their leaderships during the 10-week Mitchell Review on devolution and decommissioning.
Sinn Féin anger
On Monday, Sinn Féin reacted angrily to a statement by the British Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Mandelson, in the House of Commons that he will collapse the institutions proposed in the Good Friday agreement if the IRA doesn’t decommission.
Mandelson said that if decommissioning didn’t take place, he would have no hesitation, whatever the crisis it caused, in bringing to an end all the institutions due to be set up this week, including the executive and the All-Ireland Ministerial Council.
Sentiments similar to Mandelson’s were voiced in the Dáil in Dublin on Tuesday by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who warned that if there are difficulties with devolving powers or decommissioning arms, the peace agreement could be suspended by the British and Irish governments.
Ahern told the Dáil that although decommissioning is a voluntary act and cannot be imposed "it is essential, as all parties have recognized."
The taoiseach said that if there was difficulty with either devolution of decommissioning "we are by definition in a very serious situation."
If the agreement is not, he said, in "significant respects . . . being implemented, the governments would have to step in and assume their responsibilities, including through appropriate suspension arrangements
Road to devolution
Meanwhile, Sen. George Mitchell’s final report on implementing the Good Friday agreement, published on Thursday, said decommissioning and devolution were both now possible in the North and should be put in place as soon as possible.
After last week’s tumultuous events, culminating in groundbreaking statements from Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionists, the IRA and both governments, Mandelson set out a timetable for devolution.
He said that, on Monday, Nov. 29, he would ask the Assembly to choose an executive. This would be two days after the UUP Council vote. Once ministers have been elected, a Devolution Order will be put at Westminster, and devolution will take place two days later, on Dec. 2.
But all of these ambitious plans are contingent on the UUP council agreeing to support Trimble.
Ripples from the U.S.
Trimble was also ruffled by reports over what two leading Sinn Féiners, Martin Ferris and Pat Doherty, said — or didn’t say — during visits to the U.S.
After reading press reports claiming Ferris and Doherty doubted whether the IRA would decommission after the Executive was formed, Trimble threatened to cancel the Council meeting.
He demanded clarification from Sinn Féin, and on Monday this week, Gerry Adams obliged with a comprehensive re-statement of his party’s view that decommissioning is "an essential part" of the peace process that can be "finally and satisfactorily" dealt with under the ‘gis of the International Body on Decommissioning.
The IRA issued its long-awaited statement on decommissioning this week, refraining this time from once again saying it will not decommission "either by the front door or the back door".
The statement reads, in full: "The IRA is committed unequivocally to the search for freedom, justice and peace in Ireland.
"In our view, the Good Friday Agreement is a significant development and we believe its full implementation will contribute to the achievement of lasting peace. We acknowledge the leadership given by Sinn Féin throughout this process.
"The IRA is willing to further enhance the peace process and consequently, following the establishment of the institutions agreed on Good Friday last year, the IRA leadership will appoint a representative to enter into discussions with General John de Chastelain and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning."