By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, has warned of a crisis as early as June, possibly resulting in the collapse of the Good Friday agreement, unless there is movement from the IRA on decommissioning weapons.
Trimble said another dispute over arms could overshadow the campaign leading to the British general election, now expected on June 7, when his party is expected to come under intense electoral pressure from the anti-Agreement DUP, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley.
Trimble said this week the 1998 peace agreement was "not stable" in its current form.
"Unless there is movement there is going to be a crisis and that crisis could come before the general election," he said. "I can’t see how we can get through June if republicans have not moved."
Sinn Fein has repeatedly accused Trimble of using his own weak leadership position as a bargaining chip to persuade the British and Irish governments to step up pressure on the IRA over decommissioning.
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The party says that if the two governments comply, they will play into the hands of anti-agreement unionists and encourage Trimble to repeatedly use his weakness and perhaps fatally damage the agreement.
The election is set to be the most hotly contested of recent years, with over half the North’s 18 seats due to change hands. The DUP are already predicting Trimble’s demise, and much is expected to ride on whether he robustly defends the agreement.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness said Northern Ireland’s parties should not be deflected by the British general election as they try to find a solution to problems in the peace process.
McGuinness said "a lot of spade work" needed to be done between now and June to make up the ground between the parties and the British government on policing, the scaling down of British Army bases, sanctions against Sinn Fein, and the issue of paramilitary weapons.
He confirmed there would be "contact between now and a possible election in June" between his party and the two governments in a bid to move the issues forward.
"We are of the view that just because we are facing a possible election does not mean people should stop facing up to their responsibilities," he said. He also accused Trimble of acting illegally in thwarting meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council.
For his part, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has warned it will be "practically impossible" to deal with the unresolved issues in the peace process if they are not addressed before midsummer and there is now a "tight time scale."
Partly to combat a sense of political vacuum, it is expected that a program of meetings will take place soon to prepare for the intense post-election negotiations in June.
"There are a number of outstanding issues which we have to try to come to grips with," said Ahern. But he said he did not share Trimble’s view that the devolved institutions could soon collapse.
"The agreement is strong", he said. "Foot-and-mouth has been an awful dilemma for the island, particularly for our Northern colleagues over the last few weeks. But it has also shown the strength of a devolved administration and how people can work together."
Ex-INLA man killed
A former member of the INLA was gunned down in Derry on Saturday in what the RUC say was a drugs-linked shooting. No group has yet claimed responsibility for shooting Christopher O’Kane, 37.
Sources said he was a drug dealer and had spent time in prison. Police say they are investigating the possibility that republican paramilitaries may have carried out the killing.
An RUC spokesman said that a group of three to four men was involved in the murder. The dead man was hit six times in the abdomen and died shortly after being admitted to hospital.
O’Kane was described by an RUC source as having been "extremely conscious about his personal security and safety." His precautions included closed-circuit TV cameras above the front door of his home, security lights and three guard dogs.