Arms Report Threatens N. Ireland Accord

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Like its Middle Eastern equivalent, Northern Ireland's peace process is perennially in crisis. But Monday's secret report by the Canadian overseer of the arms-decommissioning process could be a decisive setback. General John De Chastelain is widely expected to find little progress toward IRA disarmament in his report to the governments of Britain and the Republic of Ireland, and that has the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party — the largest party in the territory's historic joint administration — once again threatening to walk out, a move that would collapse the Northern Ireland Assembly and restore direct rule from London. "Disarmament is primarily a psychological issue for both sides," says TIME London bureau chief Jef McAllister. "The weapons aren't being used right now, and even if they were handed in it wouldn't guarantee peace — it would be pretty easy for the IRA to acquire more if it chose to. But the Unionists insist they can't stay in government while the IRA remains armed, while the IRA points out that the Good Friday Agreement requires only that decommissioning be completed by May 22."

Despite pressure for a disarmament gesture from quarters as diverse as the White House and the majority Catholic party, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams simply protested that his party has no control over IRA decisions, even though it's universally accepted that they're two wings of the same Republican movement — which is not to deny, of course, that the peace process has created serious divisions between moderates and hard-liners. The same division on the Unionist side may force Trimble's hand: "Trimble faced a mutiny in his own ranks over the IRA weapons issue last November, and only won 58 percent of the Unionist vote for staying in the peace process after promising that he would resign from the new government by February if the IRA hadn't started turning in weapons," says McAllister. And direct rule by London, after all, has traditionally been the core demand of Ulster Unionism. This time, then, it may be Adams' turn to face down the hard-liners on his side of the divide.