By Anne Cadwallader and Patrick Markey
BELFAST — Northern Ireland’s fragile peace process faced its most serious crisis since the signing of the Good Friday agreement with the British government expected to suspend the new power-sharing government after the release of a report on arms decommissioning.
First Minister and Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble said Tuesday he expects the suspension of the new government because his party could no longer share power with Sinn Fein without movement on the handover of IRA weapons.
Unionist politicians said that without a start to actual decommissioning of the IRA arsenal, they could not sit in Stormont and Trimble said he expected the new executive and assembly to be suspended within days.
The crisis comes with the release of the report by Gen. John de Chastelain, head of the independent body monitoring arms, which details the progress toward disarmament by paramilitary groups. Though the contents of the report have not been made public, Trimble said he believed the report contained no evidence of progress.
"While there may be other language in the report, that cannot change this simple fact," the first minister said.
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"That obviously means that there has been a default. . . . Decommissioning is essential — we never had any intention to be in government with any party allied to a terrorist group which uses its guns occasionally."
On Tuesday, Irish and British officials worked frantically behind the scenes to salvage the negotiations over what has become a constant sticking point to implementing Northern Ireland’s new government.
In Dublin, Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson, meeting with the Ireland’s new foreign minister, Brian Cowen, said suspending the executive and institutions would only happen if there were no other options. Both ministers met for about an hour and half to try to maximize and preserve the progress made, one senior source said.
"It’s very tough and the stakes are high," the source said.
Mandelson said the de Chastelain report contained positive elements which had to be examined before conclusions could be reached.
"All these are enormously important developments, which make life worth living," Mandelson told the BBC.
In a statement to news media, the IRA on Tuesday also said it remains committed to peace and emphasized that its guns remained silent. In its statement, the IRA confirmed that its interlocutor met with the International Decommissioning Body on three occasions, once as late as Monday night.
"Our representative stressed that we are totally committed to the peace process" an IRA spokesman said.
The spokesman said the interlocutor had also stressed that "the IRA wants a permanent peace; that the declaration and maintenance of the cessation, which is now entering its fifth year, is evidence of that; that the IRAs guns are silent and that there is no threat to the peace process from the IRA."
Such is the anxiety about the peace process that former U.S. Sen., George Mitchell, who helped negotiate the agreement, has apparently been approached to return and chair another review on the linkage between decommissioning and devolution.
But the row over weapons appeared to be sending the negotiations process into an impasse. Senior sources close to the negotiations said they believed it appeared increasingly unlikely that even positive statements within the report would be able to halt the Unionists pulling out and the suspension going ahead.
After the Mitchell review, Trimble said that his party would review their participation in the executive again. Asked if Mitchell, during the review, had told Trimble that he accepted Jan. 31 as the deadline for IRA decommissioning, the UUP leader replied, "Yes." Trimble said the institutions of the new government had been set up in the expectation that decommissioning would happen within weeks.
Sinn Fein, however, denied that any deadline had been established or that those were the expectations the party took away from the Mitchell review.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said his party had fulfilled its responsibilities and he appealed to the UUP to remain within the assembly.
"I can tell you we are in a real crisis at this time — if the rejectionist unionists have their way and if the UUP either walk from this process or force the governments to collapse the process, then I don’t know how we are going to put it together again," he said.
But Adams said that despite the crisis the difficulties could be resolved.
"You show me in this [the Good Friday agreement document] where our party has defaulted on anything," he said, "where it says a unilateral decision by one party, that decommissioning had to be done on their terms by yesterday, is contained in that document."