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Archive for Saturday, August 11, 2001

Loophole buys time in N. Ireland

August 11, 2001

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— Britain stepped in Friday to save Northern Ireland's power-sharing government by taking away its powers for a day a legal maneuver that allowed for six more weeks of talks toward an agreement a top official said was "tantalizingly close."

The one-day suspension "breathes life into the process by extending by six weeks the period we've got," said John Reid, Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, who made the announcement.

"We are, I believe, tantalizingly close to being in a different world here in Northern Ireland. I believe parties should be given more time," he said.

The decision exploiting a loophole in the legislation governing power-sharing took effect at midnight Friday (6 p.m. CDT). It removed today's deadline to elect a new leader of the Catholic-Protestant government. If Britain had not suspended the administration and the legislature, it would have had to dissolve both and call new elections.

The crisis began when the Ulster Unionists, Northern Ireland's major Protestant party, refused to continue sharing power with the Sinn Fein party as long as its partner, the Irish Republican Army, refused to start disarming in support of a 1998 Good Friday peace pact.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble resigned six weeks ago as the government's first minister and was unwilling to seek re-election in the legislature, where he faces opposition from hard-line Protestants. The deadline for that apparent make-or-break vote is now late September.

The Irish government, the Ulster Unionists and moderate Catholic politicians all supported Britain's strategy. They agreed that the elements for a deal to save the coalition were nearly in place, but still depend on a start to IRA disarmament.

Sinn Fein denounced Britain's move and hinted that the IRA might withdraw its latest agreement this week with disarmament overseers.

"Today's decision is a body blow to the agreement," charged Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, who said IRA supporters felt "frustrated and angered." He said Britain had rewarded Trimble "for his intransigence and opposition to real change."

Others called Sinn Fein's reaction overblown, given that Northern Ireland's administration and its 108-member legislature were certain to have their powers restored. The legislature has been in recess since July 4, and the Cabinet hasn't met since July 26.

Sinn Fein and the hard-line Protestants of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party both wanted new elections, since both scored record gains at the expense of moderates in the United Kingdom's national elections in June.

Reid said he would transfer power back to local hands after meeting Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen today.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who has worked closely with the British government in recent months, said, "However slow and frustrating the process may seem, I believe that the period ahead offers a further chance to bridge differences and to secure progress.

"I urge everyone to avail of this opportunity," he said.

A spokesman for President Bush, on vacation in Texas, said Britain's move "offers a useful path forward."

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