By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The two Sinn Fein ministers are suing the Ulster Unionist leader for his refusal to sign the documents required to allow them to attend cross-border ministerial council meetings, and the Northern Secretary for declining to overturn the refusal.
Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brun began legal action after three weeks of behind-the-scenes talks with the British and Irish governments failed to resolve the impasse over UUP leader David Trimble’s sanction against Sinn Fein for the IRA’s failure to begin weapons decommissioning.
McGuinness and de Brun are now both seeking a judicial review of Trimble’s decision to withold their nominations to meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council, arguing that his decision is unlawful.
McGuinness is due to meet his Southern counterpart in Dublin on Friday under the auspices of the North-Soutn Ministerial Council. De Brun has already been unable to act as minister for health in a similar meeting earlier this month.
"We have tried to resolve this matter politically," said Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president. "We will continue in contact with both governments, but I have little confidence in the British government’s management of this process.
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"The reality is that David Trimble is in breach of his obligations under the Good Friday agreement and [Northern Secretary] Peter Mandelson is refusing to use his authority to defend the agreement.
"Sinn Fein is not prepared to tolerate this emasculation of the Agreement by the first minister nor to acquiesce in the progressive termination of the All-Ireland Ministerial Council."
Both Sinn Fein ministers are suing in their official capacity, meaning the taxpayer is footing the legal bill. The challenge has caused an outcry among unionists that Sinn Fein ministers can use public funds, instead of party funds, to mount such legal proceedings.
If Trimble loses, it would likely provoke an immediate crisis in the political process. A victory in court for Sinn Fein may mean that Friday’s planned North-South Ministerial Conference meeting in Dublin could go ahead as planned.
If Sinn Fein wins, Trimble could then be forced by his internal anti-Agreement dissidents to quit the Executive or even quit the Assembly, thus creating an even bigger crisis for the British and Irish governments.
John Hume, the SDLP leader, said at his party’s annual conference last weekend that Trimble’s action was "wrong" and "deeply regrettable." He said Trimble used a technical and procedural clause outside the spirit of the agreement.
Trimble, for his part, remains confident that no legal challenge can succeed.
In the Republic, meanwhile, an opinion the Irish Independent showed strong support for Sinn Fein taking Cabinet seats in Dublin if the party holds the balance of power in the next Dail.
A majority would be prepared to accept Sinn Fein ministers even if there was no evidence of arms decommissioning by the IRA. A total of 45 percent of voters believe that Sinn Fein should have seats at a coalition Cabinet table, 6 percent more than those opposed.
Labor voters, at 56 percent, are the most supportive of the concept of Sinn Fein in government, compared to 45 percent of Fianna Fail voters and 36 percent of Fine Gael supporters.
Sinn Fein has been solidifying its committed support in the Republic with a 5 percent vote share, two points more than the PDs, who are currently in government with Fianna Fail.