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I’ll Quit

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Anne Cadwallader

BELFAST — The Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, stunned the Northern Ireland assembly on Tuesday by announcing he had signed a post-dated letter of resignation from his post as first minister, to take effect on July 1, unless the IRA has begun decommissioning.

Trimble took the assembly by surprise when he rose and told its speaker, "I have signed and lodged with you a letter resigning as first minister as from July 1, 2001. This letter will take effect unless before that date the republican movement keeps the promise it made over a year ago."

Trimble insisted that he had decided to make the announcement long before hearing, on the same day, that the British prime minister, Tony Blair, was making June 7 the date for the general election.

Trimble has used this tactic once before, in February last year, to bring maximum pressure to bear on the IRA. To avoid possible defeat by anti-agreement delegates to a meeting of the ruling Ulster Unionist Council, he said he had given a post-dated letter of resignation to the then party president, Sir Josias Cunningham.

In that event, to avoid Trimble’s resignation, the British government suspended the executive, thus prompting a full-scale crisis that was only resolved after intensive talks involving the British prime minister in May 2000, when the IRA agreed with London to appoint two international arms inspectors.

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This time, with the letter given to the assembly speaker, Lord John Alderdice, Trimble is regarded as taking an even more radical step, one that he will be unable to avoid honoring if the IRA does not move by July 1.

Trimble said he took the step reluctantly, but that the IRA had forced his hand by not delivering on its promise to decommission.

"IRA material, far from being handled so as to avoid risk and misappropriation, has been used during the last year to bomb and kill," Trimble said. "I am convinced that if we were to acquiesce in the failure of the republican movement to keep its promises, the people of Northern Ireland would always be at the mercy of armed gangs."

Trimble said he had come to his decision "because there is so little time left [before the June target deadline for decommissioning]." He also accused some in the republican movement of thinking "they can avoid their obligations."

In a veiled attack on the British Northern secretary, John Reid, Trimble also said he had decided to move "because there have been some comments, purporting to come from the [British] government" that June was no longer a firm deadline for decommissioning.

Reaction to Trimble’s bombshell was quick. Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein said it was "absolutely disastrous" and called it a "wrecker’s charter." He predicted that, far from bolstering the UUP’s chances of doing well at the polls, it would result in a worse showing. He also said it would make decommissioning less likely.

Seamus Mallon, the deputy first minister, said the development would make it harder for those who wanted the institutions set up by the Good Friday agreement to survive. He said he had had only two minutes’ notice of Trimble’s intentions.

Had he had more time, Mallon said, he would have tried to dissuade the Ulster Unionist leader.

"It certainly does not make the prognosis better, but we will have to see if we can see if we can ride this, as we have done in the past," he said.

"I stand by the agreement, I have done it for three very, very difficult years. I will continue to do it. The agreement is what we have decided. The election result will show that people want this to work, but that they are getting fed up with the way the institutions are being used and abused for party political reasons."

Peter Robinson, the DUP deputy leader, said he could think of no more "cynical" an election stunt that Trimble’s announcement.

"It has all the resonance of a leader in panic, someone who knows that the electorate is about to deliver a verdict and who is already running before them," Robinson said.

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