Updated July 15, 1999 at 3 p.m. By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST – The Irish and British governments have been left to pick up the pieces after the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast and the collapse of their plans to set up a power-sharing government.
Thursday was a day of high drama and low farce in Belfast. The Ulster Unionists refused to show up to nominate their ministers to the Northern Ireland Executive, prompting the adjournment of the Assembly and a review of the entire political process, which is to begin in September.
At the heart of the row was the vexing issue of the handing over of paramilitary weapons. Two weeks earlier, the two governments had proposed a formula that had the backing of Sinn Fein and the other parties, but the guarantees the so-called "Way Forward" document included were apparently not strong enough for the Ulster Unionists.
The UUP is still insisting on prior decommissioning of IRA arms before the setting up of the Executive. Even the British government’s offer this week of a decommissioning timetable, a move this week that angered Sinn Fein and preplexed the Irish government, did not placate them.
The deputy first minister of the Assembly, Seamus Mallon of the SDLP, thus resigned Thursday, and although the first minister, David Trimble, hasn’t yet resigned that post, he is under pressure to do so.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
Despite being told the Ulster Unionists would not nominate ministers, the British government went ahead and triggered the setting up of the Executive, as it said it would do. The Unionists had already balked at doing so five times previously because of UUP objections.
So the process landed on Thursday morning in a shambles that left the politicians in a state of shock and the two governments bitterly frustrated. The British prime minister and the Irish taoiseach had spent five days around the clock negotiating two weeks ago.
Since then, emergency legislation was rushed through the House of Commons and three amendments were even proposed at the last minute, among them the offer of a decommissioning timetable, all in a bid to entice the Ulster Unionists to take part in the Executive.
All this took place, ironically, on the same day the three chairman of the original talks process that led to last year’s agreement on April 10th (U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain and former Finnish Prime Minister Harri Holkeri) received honors from Queen Elizabeth in London.
Blair, Ahern to meet
Britain’s Northern Ireland secretary, Mo Mowlam, announced to the House of Commons that Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Irish taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, will meet next week to decide how the official review of the Good Friday Agreement will progress.
Speaking at Westminster, Mowlam expressed her disappointment that "The Way Forward" – a document that she described as "a balanced approach which could have succeeded" – had apparently failed, but said she did not want to apportion blame because "the last thing Northern Ireland needs is a round of recrimination."
"Today has been a setback," she said. "It would be foolish to suggest otherwise. But progress has been made and I place my trust in the people of Northern Ireland . . . who are so bitterly disappointed."
She said the next step was to institute a formal review of proceedings under the agreement and said that she would be available throughout the next week for dialogue with all the main parties in Northern Ireland.
Announcing his decision not to attend the Assembly meeting, Trimble said the process should not be "crashed" but "parked."
"We are now in the summer, and it is now appropriate for us all to take time to review the situation, to think things through, to sort out the legislation, to prepare for the next stage, which I hope we will resolve positively," he said.
But Sinn Fein has called for Blair to dismiss Trimble as Northern Ireland’s first minister. Sinn Fein’s president, Gerry Adams, accused unionists of being wedded to an "Afrikaaner mentality" and of refusing to accept change.
"What we saw today was the last hurrah of the Paisley-type ethos that has so distorted Northern Irish politics," Adams said, insisting his party would continue to seek to work with groups from across the sectarian divide.
Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, said the refusal of unionists to sit in the Executive had nothing to do with decommissioning. He pointed out that the Progressive Unionist leader, David Ervine, had condemned the Ulster Unionists’ actions, saying they were "committing political suicide for very narrow and base reasons."
The Democratic Unionist leader, Ian Paisley, had earlier refused to nominate ministers during the Assembly meeting. Paisley hailed this morning’s outcome. "Today has been a good day for Northern Ireland," he said. "Democracy has triumphed and there are no IRA men in the government of Northern Ireland."
He also accused Trimble of not turning up to the Assembly to maintain his office as first minister. "I am now the leader of unionism, I have the mandate. They ran away," he said.
Earlier story By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The knife-edge timetable for devolving authority to a power-sharing Executive at Stormont by the weekend was teetering on the brink of collapse this week as the Ulster Unionists decided whether they were on board.
The UUP has suggested radical changes to the British government bill that enacts the proposals on devolution and decommissioning that were put forward by London and Dublin to break the impasse in the peace process.
It seems unlikely that the British government will accept the changes to proposals that were hammered out after five days of talks at Stormont. The bill gives the independent Decommissioning Body the authority to say when a paramilitary group has "defaulted" on its obligation to disarm.
Sinn Fein strongly argues the UUP amendments fall outside the terms of the Good Friday agreement and the SDLP has accused the UUP and Conservatives of "playing politics" with the peace process.
If the amendments fall, the Ulster Unionists are likely to withhold their consent to the setting up of the power-sharing Executive government for Northern Ireland, due to be established on Thursday this week.
If so, then the tightly scheduled timetable to transfer power to Stormont could fall into disarray. The only option left would be a full review of the Good Friday agreement, leading to an uncertain future for the historic compromise between nationalism and unionism.
The UUP amendments have been jointly raised with the British Conservative Party, a significant breach of the tradition bipartisan policy on Northern Ireland and indicative of how far to the right the Tories, under the leadership of William Hague, have drifted.
In the absence of the changes, the UUP seems unlikely to agree to setting up the Executive, putting three years’ work at risk and precipitating a full-scale political crisis.
The joint Ulster Unionist/Conservative Party amendments stipulate a strict timetable for decommissioning, including:
€ That four days after devolution the IRA must appoint a "contact person" who would have to "give notice to decommission weapons."
€ The IRA would have a limit of four weeks to begin actually decommissioning weapons.
€ The accelerated prisoner-release scheme would be halted for any paramilitary group that doesn’t begin disarming.
€ Sinn Fein would cease to be eligible for places on the power-sharing Executive if the IRA fails to disarm.
€ Scrapping of the Patten Commission on the future of the RUC unless the IRA decommissions.
Sinn Fein opposed
Sinn Fein says even the proposed British legislation is "unnecessary, falling outside the provisions of the Good Friday agreement and legislating for failure."
The party is also vigorously opposing the 32 unionist amendments, claiming they fall outside the terms of the Good Friday agreement and "pander" to the rejectionist wing of the UUP.
The taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, has emphasized the Irish government’s opposition to any proposals that would exclude Sinn Fein. He also said that Sinn Fein’s position on decommissioning "was a deeply important one and should be acknowledged by all of us as a hugely positive and constructive contribution to the search for a compromise."
The timetable for this week, as planned by the two governments, is due to be:
Wednesday — Bill passes through House of Lords, quickly followed by the royal assent. Ulster Unionist Party executive meets in Belfast to debate the final outcome.
Thursday — Assembly meeting to debate DUP resolution on exclusion of Sinn Fein and the triggering of the mechanism setting up the power-sharing Executive, with the UUP getting three seats, the SDLP three, Sinn Fein two and the DUP two. If the UUP refuses to nominate ministers during the Assembly meeting it will end the process.
Friday — Devolution order enacted in the House of Commons, London
Sunday — Devolution comes into force and handover of power from London to Belfast and the Executive.
To facilitate this timetable, late on Monday, the British government published its bill to allow devolution to go ahead this weekend. The draft legislation was a bid to reassure Unionists that they will not have to sit in a power-sharing executive with Sinn Féin if the IRA fails to decommission its weapons.
But, after an hour-long meeting with the British prime minister, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said that there were still problems with the bill and that his party would be putting forth amendments.
Sinn Féin was also unhappy with the fail-safe legislation and was seeking legal advice. Assembly member Bairbre de Brun claimed the British government was attempting to railroad through unnecessary legislation without proper consultation.
Under the proposals, it would be up to the Canadian chair of the Commission on Decommissioning, General John de Chastelain, to judge whether any party was in breach of its commitments on decommissioning.
If that were the case, the bill allows for the suspension of all the institutions established under the Good Friday agreement, pending a review of the process by the two governments.
The UUP argues this is unfair, punishing those parties without a paramilitary wing equally with the parties who had defaulted on the obligations under the Agreement and the new bill.
Following the review, the assembly would then be able to debate and vote on what action to take. However, the draft legislation in itself does not allow for the exclusion of Sinn Féin from the executive. That could only happen following a vote of the assembly involving cross-community support.
Rather than suspending all the institutions, should the IRA not decommission, the UUP wants Sinn Fein specifically to be excluded from the Executive, which will govern the North. This, however, would breach the Good Friday agreement.
Sinn Féin negotiator Gerry Kelly urged Blair to stand up to the "unionist veto" and establish the institutions envisioned under the Good Friday agreement. Asked about an IRA statement on decommissioning, he said that it was a matter for the IRA.
The Ulster Unionist Executive met on Friday and adjourned its decision to this Wednesday, issuing a hardline statement in the interim which reaffirmed the party’s stance of "no guns, no government." The party called on the IRA and all paramilitary organizations to start decommissioning immediately.
Ulster Unionist deputy leader John Taylor claimed on Friday that Irish Taoiseach Ahern had given any chance of breaking the impasse the "kiss of death" by claiming Sinn Fein and the IRA were different organizations.
Earlier, Blair said there is little more he can do to help the Northern peace process if politicians fail to break the deadlock over decommissioning. Blair said he had taken the process as far possible and it was up to the Northern politicians to strike a deal.