Britain stripped power from Northern Ireland's Catholic-Protestant government today, a maneuver that will give political parties six more weeks to break their impasse over Irish Republican Army disarmament.
Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid announced Britain had withdrawn authority from the administration and legislature effective at midnight local time, but might hand power back after consulting the Irish government Saturday.
The suspension capped a tense week in which disarmament chiefs and the IRA agreed on a secret method for disposing of weapons, but not a date to start.
Protestant leaders insisted that the IRA must start getting rid of its arms, otherwise they would scuttle a power-sharing arrangement that includes the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party.
It was the second time Britain took powers away from the 20-month-old administration, both times in an attempt to resolve the question of when the IRA would disarm in support of the Good Friday peace accord of 1998.
Deadlines to Serve the People
Reid's action, exploiting a legal technicality, meant the four-party administration could survive for at least another six weeks without a Protestant leader. The deadline to elect a new "first minister" had been Saturday following the resignation six weeks ago of David Trimble, who leads the major Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists.
"As so often in Northern Ireland, we have reached what appears to be an immovable date. ... But I believe that dates and deadlines are here to serve the people, not the other way round," Reid said at his Hillsborough Castle residence near Belfast.
Reid said the law prohibited him from saying immediately how long the suspension would last.
The Disarmament Issue
But British officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the joint strategy of the British and Irish governments was to hand power back to local hands after Saturday's meeting between Reid and Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen.
Britain and Ireland both hope that the coming six weeks will allow local parties to forge a new agreement involving cutbacks to British military forces, reforms to the mostly Protestant police force, and the disposal of hidden stockpiles of IRA weaponry. All have been goals of the 1998 pact and subsequent agreements.
The immediate effect may be to break the cycle of increasingly angry exchanges among the party leaders, and give time for tempers to cool. Trimble departed with his wife and children for a two-week vacation in Austria today.
Britain took charge for three months last year when the IRA's refusal to disarm last fueled rebellion within Ulster Unionist ranks. At that time, power-sharing was resuscitated after the IRA pledged it would start disarming.
Looking for an Agreement
Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander who is education minister in the Northern Ireland administration, said Britain risked alienating Catholics by pulling the plug on "the people's institutions — even for a day."
McGuinness, comparing the North's Catholics with 1960s-era U.S. civil rights protesters, said angrily: "We are not going to the back of the bus for David Trimble, John Reid or anybody else. Those days are gone."
Britain two weeks ago published its plans for cutting forces, closing bases and reducing helicopter use along the border with the Republic of Ireland. But it held back many details on its plans for reshaping the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the 88 percent Protestant force that the IRA long sought to destroy.
For its part, the IRA this week announced it had agreed with a disarmament commission on a confidential means for getting rid of its weapons. But the refusal to specify a starting date meant Trimble stood little chance of winning re-election as first minister in the legislature, where Protestants are split nearly 50-50 for or against him.
The short-term suspension received immediate support from the major Catholic-supported party in the Northern Ireland coalition, the moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party. Its spokesman Alban Maginness called it "the lesser of two evils."