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NI leader threatens to resign

David Trimble
Trimble warned that his resignation will be disastrous for peace process  

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Northern Ireland's First Minister David Trimble says he will resign unless the Irish Republican Army (IRA) start to disarm by July 1.

A spokesman for Trimble, the Protestant leader of Northern Ireland's power sharing government, said he had given a resignation letter to the Speaker of the Assembly.

The letter said his resignation would take effect on July 1 "unless before that date the republican movement keeps the promises it made over a year ago."

The public ultimatum from First Minister Trimble set him on another collision course with the IRA and its allied Sinn Fein party, which is a junior member of the four-party government Trimble heads.

Britain has already suspended the local government once before when the IRA's refusal to disarm put Trimble's position in jeopardy.

Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, who is education minister in the government, warned Trimble that his resignation would be "disastrous" for the peace process.

McGuinness also predicted that Trimble's announcement would make it "less likely" for the IRA to move on weapons.

Britain's minister responsible for Northern Ireland, John Reid, criticised Trimble's action as counterproductive. Reid said it would "be highly regrettable if he were to exclude himself from institutions which are already improving the lives of people in Northern Ireland."

A year ago, as part of a wider deal that resuscitated the power-sharing government, the IRA issued an unprecedented proclamation to put its weapons "completely and verifiably beyond use."

But so far the IRA has not scrapped a single bullet, building pressure once again on Trimble.

Trimble is also a key figure in retaining Protestant support for the 1998 power-sharing agreement aimed at bridge-building between rival Protestant and Roman Catholic communities.

Protestants were angered by the release of hundreds of jailed paramilitaries and policing reforms that they said insulted the memory of officers who died at the hands of the IRA.

Catholics say they were on the receiving end of Protestant political domination for decades. They see the accord as providing "a level playing field" for both sides.

Trimble's statement coincides with an expected announcement of a British general election. British Prime Minister Tony Blair was to meet Queen Elizabeth in London later on Tuesday, prior to what was expected to be announcement of a June 7 ballot.

That vote puts Trimble at the centre of a battle for Northern Ireland's 18 seats. Four of Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party's (UUP) nine seats are seen by political analysts as vulnerable.

Trimble leads Northern Ireland's major British Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, but faces considerable Protestant hostility to the 1998 accord.

Trimble said he had told Prime Minister Tony Blair of his action.

He said: "The IRA promised a year and two days ago that they would put their weapons beyond use. There was no deadline then and they were given a whole year to do something. They haven't done it.

"June of this year was set by the governments last year as being the date for the full implementation of the Agreement. Consequently with the focus on the June date, I thought I would make it absolutely clear that the June deadline mattered."

A spokesman for the prime minister said that it would be "highly regrettable" if Mr Trimble were to resign his post for any reason.

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The Office of the First Minister & Deputy First Minister
The Northern Ireland Assembly
Northern Ireland Office
British Government

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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