By Anne Cadwallader and Jack Holland
BELFAST — With no hint of movement from republicans to meet the Ulster Unionist Party’s demands for decommissioning to commence over the coming weeks, concern is deepening in Ireland and abroad that the new power-sharing executive could crumble next month, forcing the British to reintroduce direct rule.
The UUP has set Feb. 12 as the new deadline for its continued involvement in government with Sinn Fein, and said its decision will be dependent on the IRA beginning decommissioning before that date.
The crisis has been heightened by reports that Unionist Party leader David Trimble is, according to one aide, "absolutely seething with anger" over the British government’s decision to implement virtually all of the Patten Commission report on police reform.
Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Mandelson is expected to make an announcement to that effect today. He has already had his first meetings with members of the RUC to discuss redundancy terms in an effort to drastically scale down the force from is current level of more than 13,000 members to a figure nearer to 7,500.
It is believed Trimble managed to wring two only minor concessions out of the government — the RUC’s emblem will be preserved, although the crown which sits at the top of the harp will be placed at its side.
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There will also be restrictions on the remit of the proposed district policing partnership boards in raising money. The new name, the Northern Ireland Police Service, is expected to be phased in over a number of years, with the RUC title continuing alongside the "NIPS" acronym.
Mandelson is also likely to announce a further scaling down of security this week, with the dismantling of some of the Army watchtowers along the border, in spite of strong opposition from unionists.
The statement on policing will deepen the crisis as party sources close to Trimble warn privately, and publicly, that they cannot be expected to remain within the power-sharing Executive if the IRA fails to deliver a beginning to actual disarming by then.
The UUP says it set Feb. 12 as the date, rather than Feb. 5, as at first suggested, to give the IRA an extra week to make its move. It says it expects a crucial report from the de Chastelain Commission on disarming by the end of January.
Trimble has signed a post-dated letter of resignation to take effect if there is no IRA decommissioning. His two other ministers, Sam Foster and Sir Reg Empey, are also thought to have signed similar letters.
Once their resignations are triggered, then under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, the Executive becomes null and void as it will not have sufficient cross-community support.
Although the Mandelson is now speaking of arms being put "beyond use" and made "permanently inaccessible" by the paramilitaries — which it is believed Unionists would accept — the IRA has given no indication of imminent moves to seal arms into dumps or destroy them itself.
The taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, also said this week that decommissioning had to take place. He was speaking in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was on an official visit.
UUP security spokesman Ken Maginnis, who backed Trimble over decommissioning, responded angrily to reports that the RUC reforms are to go ahead, and that Sinn Fein’s two MPs are to be allowed facilities in the House of Commons without taking the oath of allegiance to Queen Elizabeth.
Referring to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness as "two as yet unreconstructed terrorists," he added, "Can we expect anything but submission every time from the British government to republicans?"
Maginnis claimed that Mandelson had changed his mind over the Patten Report only after being "sandbagged" by the Irish-American lobby during a visit to the United States at Christmas.
During this visit, Mandelson told the Irish Echo that Patten would be implemented in full.
"The name change is totally unjustified and is something we thought might reasonably have been set to one side," Maginnis said. "It will do nothing whatsoever to sweeten the republicans. It is a bloody-minded decision which will cause significantly more problems than it will resolve."
He reserved his strongest anger for the proposed district policing partnership boards, which in areas such as West Belfast and west of the River Bann will have significant Sinn Fein representation.
On Monday, the Stormont Assembly reconvened for its first meeting since last year with heated exchanges on decommissioning and the compulsory flying of the union flag on nominated days of the year.
The Rev. Ian Paisley, the DUP leader, said he is convinced the IRA has no intention of decommissioning and said people had been misled.