Divisions Threaten Stability in Belfast

The attempt by sectarian communities to share power in Northern Ireland teetered toward collapse Tuesday when the parties that are largely Protestant declared they would no longer sit in a government with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

The crisis has developed swiftly since Friday, when police began arresting republican activists on charges of stealing sensitive British government documents from offices in Northern Ireland’s parliament building. Three people have been charged in the provincial capital, Belfast, with handing the stolen papers to Sinn Fein strategists and the IRA, an act of political espionage that unionist First Minister David Trimble described as “10 times worse than Watergate.”

Already under pressure from hard-liners within his Ulster Unionist Party who are anxious to expel Sinn Fein from government, Trimble went to London’s 10 Downing St. on Tuesday to deliver British Prime Minister Tony Blair an ultimatum. Trimble said he and his ministers would quit unless Sinn Fein’s two representatives are thrown off the power-sharing executive--the cornerstone of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that was supposed to end the violence between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

Unionists will not return to governing with Sinn Fein until the IRA declares its war against the British state over, disarms and disbands, Trimble said.


The British government said it would hold discussions with all parties this week.

Issuing ultimatums and deadlines is becoming habitual among politicians in Northern Ireland, but Blair described the current situation as “very serious,” noting that the peace process “can only be made to work on the basis that everyone accepts the full principles of that agreement” and “an end to any form of terrorism.”

Blair’s dilemma, however, is how to cut a political deal to keep the process alive. He must placate a unionist community antsy because the IRA’s cease-fire and grudging first steps toward disarmament have not fully ended its paramilitary operations. Yet he has no desire to accede to demands to kill off a power-sharing arrangement that, however flawed, has kept sectarian violence far below the horrific levels of the 30-year “Troubles,” during which more than 3,000 people were killed.

Blair has repeatedly said he is convinced that Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are sincere about their party’s switch from physical force to constitutional force, as the Sinn Fein politicians put it.


Most observers expect Blair to suspend, rather than kill, the Northern Ireland Assembly. That tactic would have the advantage of postponing the reckoning of new elections. Polls indicate that an election would strengthen hard-line parties on both sides of the sectarian divide: Sinn Fein among Catholic voters and the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists--which opposes the Good Friday agreement--among Protestants.

But rebuilding trust between two communities so mutually suspicious is now almost certain to be more difficult. Unionist agitation about the peace process goes deeper than reaction to the bizarre events Friday, when heavily armed police stormed into Sinn Fein’s parliamentary offices. Those arrested and charged include Denis Donaldson, 52, Sinn Fein’s chief of administration; William Mackessy, a 44-year-old former messenger at the Assembly building; and Fiona Farrelly, 46, a community worker.

Among the papers allegedly photocopied were notes from discussions on Northern Ireland between Blair and President Bush.