Northern Ireland's moderate Roman Catholic nationalists stepped up pressure on the Irish Republican Army on Monday to give up its guns, as an independent disarmament commission confirmed that the paramilitary group has not lived up to commitments to put the weapons "beyond use."
The Social Democratic and Labor Party's Seamus Mallon told the Northern Ireland Assembly that it is time for the IRA and its political allies in Sinn Fein to abide by the 1998 Good Friday peace accord.
"Some want rights without responsibility. Some have not met their responsibilities under the agreement. In particular, three years and one day after this Assembly first met, weapons have still not been put beyond use by either republican or [Protestant] loyalist paramilitaries," Mallon said.
He said Sinn Fein's effort to convince the IRA to disarm "has borne so little fruit, it is clear that the IRA does not respect that mandate and the obligations that go with it."
Mallon's party, which shares Sinn Fein's goal of uniting the six counties of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic, has long condemned the use of violence, but until now it has been careful in its criticism of the republicans.
The harsh words from Mallon came a day after pro-British Protestant leader David Trimble resigned as head of the province's government over the weapons issue. The departure of Trimble--who is chief of the Ulster Unionist Party--automatically triggered Mallon's removal as deputy first minister under the British region's power-sharing agreement.
Legislators listened with grim faces Monday as they were officially informed of Trimble's resignation and the reality of the political crisis sank in. Mallon's attack on fellow Catholics added to the sense of gravity over the fraying of the peace process at the outset of the Protestant Orange Order's annual "marching season," which includes parades that often ignite sectarian violence.
Mallon stopped short of calling for Sinn Fein's ouster from the provincial government, an option favored by many Protestants. Nonetheless, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams lashed back in anger. He said he thought the IRA weapons issue could be resolved, but asserted, "No one should acquiesce to the threats from unionism."
Sinn Fein contends that the IRA has honored its commitments by maintaining a cease-fire since 1996 and allowing international observers to verify that its weapons remain locked in secure depots. Political parties in Northern Ireland should work together to build on that progress rather than issue ultimatums, Sinn Fein leaders say.
But their arguments have fallen on deaf ears in recent days, and they were on the defensive Monday.
"We are clearly in a crisis," Adams acknowledged.
The Assembly met as the British and Irish governments released a report by the chairman of the international disarmament commission, Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, stating that the IRA has failed to explain how and when it intends to disarm.
"In each of our meetings we have been assured of the IRA's commitment to put its arms beyond use, completely and verifiably," the report says.
De Chastelain confirmed that he met with an IRA official again last week.
"We have, however, been unable to ascertain how the IRA will put its arms beyond use, except for the assurance that it will be complete and verifiable. The IRA has taken note of our need for this information but until we know what method will be used, we cannot judge if it meets our remit," the report says.
Sinn Fein has charged that the Protestant leadership is engineering a crisis over IRA disarmament while Protestant paramilitaries continue to attack Catholics. The disarmament commission acknowledged that the Protestant groups also have not agreed to give up their weapons.
Ulster Freedom Fighters representatives told the commission that they would not discuss disarmament as long as some of their members were jailed. The group was referring to the detention of its leader, Johnny Adair, last year and his associate Gary Smith last week.
The other main loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force, said it would not disarm before it knew the IRA's plans.
Under the rules of the power-sharing government, the British and Irish governments have six weeks to try to resolve the crisis with the Northern Ireland political parties over disarmament and Sinn Fein's demands, which include police reform and British demilitarization in the province.
If an agreement is reached, Trimble could be returned to his post as first minister with Mallon as his deputy. If the parties fail to find a solution, Britain may suspend the Northern Irish government or call new elections.
Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, John Reid, and Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen are to kick off negotiations this week, but little progress is expected before British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, get personally involved next week.
The ball appears to be in the IRA's court. Speculation has centered not on whether the republicans will give in to unionist demands but on whether they will consider disarmament--and the survival of the peace process--to be in their interest.
The peace agreement has given Sinn Fein two posts in the Northern Ireland government, education minister and health minister, and growing electoral support. The party just doubled the number of its seats in the British Parliament from two to four in last month's general election.
Moreover, Sinn Fein stands to make significant gains in next year's parliamentary election in the Irish Republic, where it also runs candidates. It could become a kingmaker in the Irish Parliament, but there too, the other political parties do not want to sit in government with Sinn Fein if it has an army in reserve.
Some political commentators are asking what Sinn Fein will demand now in exchange for disarmament. Trimble warned the British government against making any further concessions, and Mallon urged both sides to stop their jockeying.
Special correspondent William Graham in Belfast, Northern Ireland, contributed to this report.