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Trimble's resignation deadline passes

Trimble quit as First Minister midnight on Saturday  

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Ulster Unionist Party chief David Trimble has quit as leader of the joint Catholic-Protestant government.

The move deepens the crisis in Northern Ireland's peace process and came hours after Catholics and Protestants clashed on the streets of Belfast.

Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, set a self-imposed deadline of midnight to quit unless the IRA began decommissioning its weapons -- one of the pillars of the Good Friday Peace Agreement.

As Trimble departed his high-profile role, Canadian General John de Chastelain was due to present his latest report on weapons decommissioning to the UK Government.

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It is due to be published early next week.

Sir Reg Empey, one of Trimble's allies, will succeed Trimble but will not over the title, salary or trappings of the office, although his appointment will allow meetings of the power-sharing executive set up under to agreement to continue.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said the Ulster Unionist leader's "kamikaze politics" were not going to achieve his objective of IRA decommissioning.

Empey, the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, said Ulster Unionists would not return to government with Sinn Fein without IRA arms decommissioning.

He told BBC Radio Ulster on Saturday his appointment was "a sticking plaster solution to allow time for negotiation."

His party, whose support is essential in propping up the political regime established under the peace process, had twice given republicans the opportunity to get rid of their guns: "We have tried our best.

"It is perfectly clear that unless people honour their commitments, we're not going into the breach for a third time."

Trimble was spending Sunday in northern France for a service marking the 85th anniversary of the Somme.

Speaking at Belfast Airport on Saturday before heading to France, Trimble told Reuters: "I expect my resignation will go ahead, I don't think anything will happen to change that. It's out of my hands now."

But there is a six-week "breathing space" for him either to be reinstalled or replaced before the devolved government collapses.

A new round of negotiations begins next week, initially managed by Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid, but Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern are expected to get involved the following week.

With the tensions surrounding the loyalist marching season due to peak at Drumcree next weekend, Ahern has warned against allowing a political vacuum to develop during the "worst two weeks of the year."

Adams, speaking on Saturday, said: "I don't want to see the institutions slipping but it isn't within my gift to prevent them if kamikaze politics is what is determining the Unionist approach to all this."

He said Mr Trimble had two objectives -- devolution and decommissioning -- adding: "It is obvious he isn't going to get decommissioning the way he is going for it and he mightn't even get devolution."

Hours before the Trimble deadline passed there was scuffles and minor violence at the first major parade of Northern Ireland's annual marching season.

Thousands of people lined the streets of Shankill Road in West Belfast, a predominantly Protestant area, to watch the Protestant Orange Order parade.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary and 1,500 British troops were brought in to keep the peace and the opposing sides apart.

At one point the security forces were pelted with plastic and glass bottles, cans, sticks and other missiles.

Church leaders have appealed for calm in advance of what could be one of the most difficult periods in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998.

Next weekend sees the big Drumcree march in Portadown, County Armagh, scene of major clashes between Catholics and Protestants in previous years.

• Ulster Unionist Party
• The Northern Ireland Executive
• Sinn Fein
• Northern Ireland Parades Commission
• Irish prime minister
• British prime minister
• Northern Ireland Office

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