The British government imposed a tough deadline on the Irish Republican Army Thursday night, threatening to shut down the new government of Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland if the IRA doesn't make progress toward disarmament in a week.
The Northern Ireland minister, Peter Mandelson, said legislation to "suspend" the Northern Ireland Assembly and Cabinet _ the historic venture in power sharing that began two months ago _ would be enacted "late next week" if no positive sign is forthcoming.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern put the squeeze even tighter on the IRA. Meeting with the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, he reportedly demanded some step immediately. "We must make further progress," Ahern said. "We've had a very difficult week."
Since Mandelson essentially sided with the Ulster Unionist Party in demanding some movement by the IRA, he has probably fended off the threat by UUP leader David Trimble to quit the Cabinet this weekend, a step that would kill the new government. However, Mandelson didn't actually suspend the government, and he didn't demand that the IRA give up any guns right now. Rather, he called for "definite information" indicating if and when the IRA will start to hand in weapons.
British and Irish anti-terrorism experts estimate that the IRA arsenal includes 3 tons of Semtex plastic explosive; 600 detonators; 650 Kalashnikov assault rifles; 30-plus Armalite assault rifles; one or two .50-caliber sniping rifles; 40 rocket launchers; one or more SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles; and six flamethrowers.
This week's turmoil stemmed from Monday's report by the international commission supervising disarmament under the 1998 Good Friday peace plan. According to Mandelson, the commission reported that none of the sectarian armies has begun disarming.
That report focused attention on the IRA because it is by far the largest of the paramilitaries, with the most lethal history. The whole dynamic of the Good Friday agreement is built around a trade-off: Roman Catholic politicians would get senior jobs in the provincial government, which had been dominated for decades by Protestants. In return, the largely Catholic Sinn Fein committed to work for IRA disarmament.
To induce all parties to sign, the Good Friday agreement was vague about when it would happen. It says only that political parties must "use any influence they may have" to persuade paramilitaries to turn in their weapons by May 22. Neither the IRA nor any other armed group is mentioned in the document.
Ever since, the several active branches of the IRA have all resisted any suggestion that they must give up arms.
In recent weeks, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has complained publicly that he is having trouble dealing with the IRA on the disarmament question. Pressure from other parties or from London doesn't help, Adams says, because IRA members are inclined to push back when pushed.
But Mandelson clearly sided Thursday with unionist politicians who set a deadline of this month for a start to IRA disarmament.
_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.