Northern Ireland's new power-sharing government could be indefinitely suspended if an imminent report on disarmament does not disclose moves by the Irish Republican Army to scrap its arsenal, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble warned on Monday.
Trimble made the comment against a background of near certainty that the report by Gen. John de Chastelain of Canada, head of an independent disarmament panel, would offer little evidence of IRA willingness to give up its weapons.
The keenly awaited document was delivered to the British and Irish governments, the BBC reported early today, and they were expected to spend some time examining it to see if there is anything that could be construed as positive before making its contents public.
"If we don't have the actions necessary to maintain confidence in this process, then this process will go into abeyance _ temporarily, I hope," said Trimble, who is also first minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which gained the power to govern Ulster only two months ago.
With the vexing problem of weapons emerging again as an obstacle to political progress, there is a growing likelihood that, in order to forestall a complete collapse of the fragile new government, a coalition of Catholic republican and Protestant unionist parties, Britain will have to reimpose the direct rule from London it removed in December.
The assembly and other new governmental bodies were set up under the April 1998 settlement aimed at ending a conflict between rival Catholic and Protestant paramilitary forces that led to the deaths of more than 3,300 people in the past three decades. Putting the terms of the accord into effect has repeatedly deadlocked over the issue of disarmament.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams has warned that though his party is the political representative of the IRA, it cannot compel the underground army to start turning over its weapons now. In response to Trimble's warning, he said that if the government was suspended, the IRA might never agree to disarm.
"It strikes me that it would be very difficult to keep the IRA in there if the institutions were removed," Adams said. IRA representatives have been meeting with de Chastelain in what has been the clandestine organization's first official involvement in the political life of the province.
Adams contended that this development and the fact that the IRA has maintained a cease-fire for more than two years demonstrated its commitment to peace. But Trimble said a "clear promise" for a start to disarming by now had been given during a review conducted last fall by George Mitchell, the former U.S. senator and mediator of the Northern Ireland peace agreement.
Trimble gained support from Seamus Mallon, the deputy first minister of the assembly and a senior member of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, the province's largest Catholic grouping. "You have a responsibility to jump as well," he said, speaking of Adams. "You agreed to it, and the understanding was clear in the Mitchell review. Decommissioning has got to be dealt with."