Armed and Unready

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In the end the foundations built so laboriously by those who sought peace could not stand the weight of bitter history. Ulster's hopeful experiment in coalition government ended last week after only 72 days, when Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson, suspended it and reimposed direct rule from London. He was avoiding what he considered a worse fate: the resignation of David Trimble, First Minister and leader of the Ulster Unionists, who had promised his party in November that he would resign unless the Irish Republican Army started to decommission its guns and explosives by the beginning of February. But the I.R.A. did not hammer its Semtex into plowshares or promise any date when it would start, so Mandelson put the Ulster government in a kind of suspended animation. He hoped that he could bring it once again to life, unharmed, after the parties yet again sit down at the negotiating table. With recriminations rising and momentum halted if not reversed, Ulster's peace process is in serious crisis.

It was odd how little uproar that caused in Ulster. The last time a power-sharing government collapsed, in 1974, it came with crippling strikes and mass demonstrations. But the mood in Ulster last week was not combative. It was resigned, sad and tired.

Yet how desperate can it be? Thirty years of Troubles are effectively over, on the ground if not in the corridors of government. Despite a small bomb planted by a republican splinter group last week that damaged a Fermanagh hotel, paramilitary killings and bombings have dwindled. The economy is booming at 5% annual growth. The fledgling multiparty government, grappling with surprising skill at the mundane tasks of locating new hospitals and funding schools--a new university campus is to straddle what had been one of the worst killing zones in the conflict--had begun to convince people that the province might soon face ordinary problems instead of extraordinary ones. Even David Trimble, though bluntly blaming Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams for failing to get the i.r.a to decommission arms, did so more in sorrow than in anger. "This is an event we take no pleasure in at all," he said.

And of the province's major leaders he was the most positive about Mandelson's strategy. Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the largest nationalist group, worried that the suspension would "make it very, very substantially more difficult" to accomplish decommissioning. Adams denounced Mandelson for shutting down Stormont to help a single party, and his deputy Martin McGuinness warned that "the likelihood of getting these institutions back up again ... in my political lifetime is virtually zero." David Ervine, head of the Progressive Unionists, said that Trimble's "moral argument is unassailable, but in real terms, it hands the I.R.A. the choice of whether we have a government or not." Mandelson himself knew his gamble was dangerous. "I very much regret this course of action," he said. "But it would have been more damaging to do nothing.''

The 1998 Good Friday agreement requires paramilitaries to hand over or render useless their weapons by May. Adams argues that the I.R.A. is not using its weapons, has broken no deadline, and shouldn't be blamed for delay when unionists refused to join the coalition government for 19 months. But the Irish government and traditional republican supporters in the U.S. have lost patience with the I.R.A.'s devotion to the weapons of yesterday's struggle. Their pressure may be working. The same day Mandelson put Ulster's government in the deep freeze, the international body in charge of decommissioning chaired by Canadian General John de Chastelain suddenly reported "valuable progress" from the I.R.A.'s representative, who declared that the group will now "initiate a comprehensive process to put arms beyond use, in a manner as to ensure maximum public confidence." That was too elliptical to keep Mandelson from pulling the plug on the executive, but it offers some hope that its hiatus might be relatively short.

The problem is that suspending the government has raised the stakes for both sides. "The conundrum now is that the unionists won't go back into the executive again unless actual weapons are handed over, and the I.R.A. will not hand over any weapons while there is direct British rule," says Brian Feeney, historian and co-author of Lost Lives, a book about those killed in the Troubles. Mandelson can try to sweeten this equation for republicans, as the Irish government lobbied him to do last week, by withdrawing some of the 14,319 British soldiers still stationed in Ulster.But if he broadens the review beyond decommissioning, unionists will attack parts of the peace deal they don't like, especially reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary--and Trimble announced he won't re-enter government unless party activists approve. Mandelson may have shoved the peace process over one tricky hurdle, but at the cost of tossing more obstacles onto the course that ultimately must be traversed by Ulster's politicians.

With reporting by Chris Thornton/Belfast