Unionists quit N.Ireland assembly
BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Ulster Unionists pulled out of Northern Ireland's power-sharing assembly at midnight, deepening the crisis in the troubled peace process.
Earlier Thursday, the party's three ministers in the unity government have handed in resignation letters to take effect at midnight, party leader David Trimble said.
The move forces the UK government to either again suspend the assembly, with rule of Northern Ireland returning to London, or call new elections.
The Ulster Unionists, the largest Protestant party, are angry over lack of progress on the decommissioning of weapons by the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Trimble, who has already quit as the assembly's leader, said his party had spent 18 months in the government with representatives of Sinn Fein, the republican political party, without the IRA putting its weapons beyond use.
"We have sustained an inclusive executive for 18 months. For 18 months we have demonstrated every day our willingness to make progress in terms of this institution and politics in Northern Ireland," said Trimble, who shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize with Catholic moderate leader John Hume.
"And for those 18 months the republican movement have done nothing, nothing at all to reciprocate the sacrifice and risks we have made."
Trimble later told CNN the move was a "last resort," adding: "It's still up to the IRA. They can still save the situation by doing what they promised to do 18 months ago. I wish they would."
Said Trimble: "I resigned on the 1st of July. That was a clear indication to the IRA if they hadn't seen it beforehand of the need to do something.
"We have been remarkably patient over the last few months -- waiting, waiting, waiting.
"I don't particularly welcome the resumption of direct rule from London but that will come about quite soon if the IRA don't move."
He said the situation was helped, however, because "it removes from office the two Sinn Fein ministers who are there."
"They will be out of office and it should be quite clear to them and quite clear to their electorate that they have brought about a crisis by their failure to keep their promises."
He said the main nationalist newspaper in Northern Ireland had on Thursday called on the IRA to start the process of disarming and laid the blame clearly on them.
"It's not just unionists who are pointing the finger and saying 'you've let us down' -- it is also nationalists."
He added that although his move was clearly a step back he hoped it would soon be a case of "two steps forward."
There had been speculation this week that the IRA leadership was on the brink of an historic move on weapons. It had been hoped the IRA could agree with disarmament officials to seal one or more of its hidden arms dumps with concrete.
The outlawed group has already allowed foreign diplomats to visit a few dumps in secret. These weapons are the first likely candidates for decommissioning as required in Northern Ireland's 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
The Northern Ireland minister, John Reid, must now decide whether to order a short suspension of the assembly or to dissolve it, returning to direct rule from London, and call new elections.
The assembly cannot survive without the participation of either the Ulster Unionists or the largest Catholic-supported party, Hume's Social Democratic and Labour Party.
CNN's European political editor Robin Oakley says the move by the Ulster Unionists means Northern Ireland is facing another crisis after a summer of disappointment and an upsurge of cross-community violence.
He said the danger of calling new elections was that there was evidence from the general election earlier this year of an increase in support for hard-line parties.
There was increased support then for Sinn Fein, the republican political party, and the Democratic Unionists, who are opposed to the peace agreement forged in Northern Ireland in 1998.
Trimble agreed in November 1999 to form a four-party government that included Sinn Fein on condition that IRA disarmament followed.
Since then Trimble has battled hard-liners, inside and outside his party, to keep the coalition intact while the IRA made little movement on the issue.
Britain has stripped power from the executive three times -- first for an indefinite period in February 2000 when it appeared likely that Trimble would be ousted as a leader.
The Ulster Unionists resumed power-sharing after the IRA said it intended to begin putting its weapons "completely and verifiably beyond use."
But the assembly has since been suspended twice for 24-hour periods over the summer after Trimble quit as first minister.
Trimble appeal to IRA
October 16, 2001
Loyalists warn against IRA bias
October 13, 2001
Ceasefire blow for N. Ireland
October 12, 2001
Second night of riots in Belfast
September 28, 2001
Journalist shot dead in N. Ireland
September 29, 2001
N. Ireland powers returned
September 22, 2001
Northern Ireland Assembly
Good Friday Agreement
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