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N.Irish future hangs in balance

There is pessimism in Northern Ireland
There is pessimism in Northern Ireland  


BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- Northern Ireland's power sharing assembly is on the brink of collapse as unionists and republicans argue over paramilitary disarming.

The UK government has until midnight on Saturday to decide whether to suspend the assembly or call fresh elections.

The crisis was sparked by Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble's decision to quit as assembly first minister in protest at the refusal by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to hand over its arsenals.

In the six weeks since Trimble officially resigned there has been intense diplomatic activity intended to keep the assembly alive.

The following options are available to N.Ireland Secretary John Reid under the Good Friday Agreement:
- Dissolve the assembly and call an election within a "reasonable time."
- Impose a tactical one-day suspension which buys six weeks for further talks.
- Impose an unlimited suspension and a review.

But rival Catholic and Protestant parties appeared as divided as ever on Thursday night.

Trimble's Ulster Unionists, Sinn Fein -- the republican political party -- and the nationalist SDLP all held separate meetings with the UK's Northern Ireland Secretary Dr. John Reid on Thursday.

After an hour-long meeting with Reid, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said suspending the institution would damage the credibility of the 1998 Good Friday agreement which underpins peace efforts in Northern Ireland.

"If the (British government) intend to suspend, they need to calculate the effect the suspension will have on nationalists and republicans and the effect it will have on the integrity of the agreement," Reuters news agency reported Adams as saying.

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Northern Ireland at crossroads  
 
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"It's been a long time coming but the reality is that this process is at a crossroads," Adams added.

London has suspended the assembly once before in its short life -- in February 2000 following a report by independent international arms monitors that none of the major paramilitary groups had started to disarm.

In the last two days the IRA has said it is committed to decommissioning its weapons but has refused to lay down a timetable for disarmament.

General John de Chastelain, head of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, agreed that the IRA had proposed an acceptable, confidential means for putting its weapons "beyond use."

But Trimble and his UUP party said the statement did not go far enough.

Trimble said: "We have an IRA statement that says they intend at some point to do (decommission). The question arises at what point.

"The (Good Friday) agreement committed the disarmament by May 22, 2000. Over a year ago on May 6, 2000 the IRA promised to do it, they haven't done it yet.

"It's because of that I announced I would resign on June 1."

Reid has a number of choices but the decision must be made by midnight Saturday.

Reid could suspend the assembly and return Northern Ireland to rule from London.

He could call fresh elections, with the risk that it would polarise opinion further -- in June elections the hardline Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein profited at the expense of the UUP and SDLP.

His third option would be to reconvene the Northern Ireland assembly for one day effectively buying a further six weeks for more negotiations.

Trimble has said that option should only be adopted if there was a real chance of it leading to IRA decommissioning.






RELATED STORIES:
• IRA fails to give arms timetable
August 9, 2001
• Crisis for N. Irish peace process
August 8, 2001
• Clash over IRA weapons plan
August 7, 2001
• IRA offers weapons move
August 6, 2001
• N.Ireland peace plan in balance
August 6, 2001
• N. Irish parties denounce UK bomb
August 3, 2001
• New NI peace blueprint unveiled
August 1, 2001

RELATED SITES:
• Northern Ireland Office
• UK government
• Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister
• Northern Ireland Assembly

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