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Unionist Chief Backs Deal to Revive N. Ireland Self-Rule

Europe: David Trimble puts his job on the line with endorsement. He delays Protestant party vote to seek support for a return to power-sharing government with Catholics.

May 19, 2000|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — After two weeks of haggling, the head of Northern Ireland's largest Protestant party put his leadership on the line Thursday and threw his support behind a deal to revive the province's power-sharing government.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble delayed a crucial meeting of his divided party for a week to campaign for the votes he needs to return to government with the Irish Republican Army's political wing, Sinn Fein, in exchange for independent inspections of IRA weapons dumps.

If he fails, he risks losing his job and possibly the Northern Ireland peace process.

Trimble began the uphill battle with a series of television appearances urging skeptics among Northern Ireland's Protestant majority to "put the IRA to the test" on its commitment to retire its weapons. He said he will tour the British province, long haunted by sectarian violence, to win grass-roots support.

"I think it is only appropriate that we take time to speak to the community, to speak to the party, and for people to have the opportunity of making an informed decision," Trimble said in a Northern Ireland television interview.

He told BBC television that the IRA offered to put its weapons "beyond use" only because his party had put the group to the test by forcing the suspension of the fledgling power-sharing government over the disarmament issue in February.

"Because of that, I think it is now appropriate to put the IRA to the test again in order to get real decommissioning," Trimble said.

Earlier this month, the British and Irish governments announced plans to restore home rule Monday in exchange for a statement from the IRA renouncing violence. The IRA said it would put its weapons "completely and verifiably beyond use" and allow two foreign diplomats to inspect its arms depots.

That wasn't enough for Protestant hard-liners, who felt that the IRA should begin to get rid of its guns before Sinn Fein is allowed back into government.

The Ulster Unionists also wanted London to back them on symbolic issues reaffirming Northern Ireland's ties to Britain. The party opposes the British government's plan to give Northern Ireland's police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a more neutral name. The unionists also want assurances that the British flag will fly from government buildings.

Roman Catholic nationalists who seek to unite Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland say no flag--or both British and Irish flags--should be flown.

Britain has delayed decisions on both issues.

Sinn Fein and the predominantly Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party have been furious at the Ulster Unionists' failure to jump on the IRA's unprecedented offer to open its arms caches.

The Social Democrats' Mark Durkan cautioned the British government against making any more "drive-by concessions" to the unionists, while Sinn Fein negotiator Martin McGuinness said: "I welcome this positive recommendation from David Trimble that he is prepared to go for this [deal]. It should have happened two weeks ago."

Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Mandelson, accepted the postponement and said he is confident that Trimble will turn around party skeptics.

"I would rather wait a week for a good result than rush forward now," Mandelson said.

But there is no guarantee that Trimble will be able to win over enough of the estimated two-thirds of his 860 council members who are either against the deal or on the fence. He narrowly survived a leadership challenge over the peace process in March, winning with 56% of the vote.

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