By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The British and Irish governments are now in a race against time to save the Good Friday agreement before Aug. 12 after the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, resigned as first minister in the power-sharing Executive. On Aug. 12, either Trimble will have succeeded in being reelected to his old job, or the British government must suspend the Good Friday agreement or order new elections to the Assembly. Because new elections could mean further political gains for the Rev. Ian Paisley’s DUP and Sinn Fein it’s thought London will be more likely to order a review of the agreement, but the two governments are determined to avoid this. Trimble has nominated his second-in-command, Sir Reg Empey, to carry out the roles and duties of first minister in his absence, but without his salary or status. This means the Executive can still meet but will not have the full authority it had prior to Trimble’s resignation. The British and Irish governments, meanwhile, after five hours of talks at Hillsborough Castle on Thursday, announced a new round of talks to save the agreement. It is the worst possible time of year to be doing so, with Drumcree Sunday approaching on July 8, closely followed by the Orange Order’s annual commemorations on July 12. The two governments know they have to bridge a wide gap between Trimble’s demands for actual decommissioning and the IRA’s position. This is that it will only move to put its weapons beyond use in the context of the full implementation of the agreement — specifically on policing, British demilitarization and the permanency of the inclusive all-Ireland element. The British prime minister, Tony Blair, and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said that although they had spent the day listening to the "same arguments" that had dogged the process for more than a year, they were not prepared to stop trying to find a resolution. Blair said this week’s talks would initially be chaired by the British Northern secretary, John Reid, and Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen. He and Ahern would then chair more intensive negotiations between the parties "as soon as possible." Both Blair and Ahern said June’s election results showed that an overwhelming majority of people still wanted to see "every single aspect of the agreement implemented." In a direct appeal to the IRA to disarm, Blair said: "It is absolutely essential if we are to have a stable process that weapons are put beyond use, that there is a commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means." Ahern said the talks process must soon come to a head. "We can’t go on endlessly. There are no new arguments or positions. It is now time to see if we can come to a conclusion," he said. Trimble stepped down as first minister at midnight Sunday, June 1, and, in his first public appearance afterward, said the IRA had missed two deadlines for the full implementation decommissioning: May 22 last year and June 30, 2001. "It is for that reason — because I can no longer have any confidence in the promises, the unfulfilled promises made by republicans, and because I wanted to ensure that there could be no question of the process moving beyond this without the [arms] issue being properly settled that I have now ceased to be first minister in Northern Ireland," he said from Thiepval, France, where he was attending a Battle of the Somme commemoration. "I am prepared to resume that office, but only if we get this issue settled and we see weapons being put permanently beyond use in accordance with the decommissioning legislation." Empey’s appointment will allow meetings of the power-sharing executive to take place, co-chaired by SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon. In the hours after the resignation, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said Trimble’s "kamikaze politics" were not going to achieve his objective of IRA decommissioning. "The threat to this process does not come from republicans," he said. "Consider that the IRA cessation has now been sustained for seven years and compare that to the real threat to the process from David Trimble and the daily events on the streets of north Belfast and in Portadown and Coleraine and in other parts where the loyalists on a daily basis are using guns and bombs."