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Court upholds ruling that Protestant leader of Northern Ireland acted illegally

Updated:

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Northern Ireland's senior appeals court on Friday upheld a ruling that the former Protestant leader of the provincial administration acted illegally when he blocked Sinn Fein members of the coalition from doing their jobs.

David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party chief who resigned in July as leader of Northern Ireland's four-party government in protest at the Irish Republican Army's refusal to disarm, said he would take his appeal to the court of last resort in the United Kingdom, the House of Lords in London.

In his Belfast ruling, Lord Chief Justice Robert Carswell said Trimble acted improperly when he blocked the administration's two members from the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party from representing the Northern Irish government in policy-making meetings with the Irish government. Such meetings have continued without Sinn Fein since October 2000.

Carswell said the reason offered by Trimble _ that such punishment was necessary because the IRA had not begun to scrap weapons _ violated the laws that govern how the power-sharing government should operate.

He said Trimble had wielded a ``discretionary power,'' as the government's senior minister, to prevent Cabinet ministers from attending meetings with the Irish government in restricted circumstances. But he said this power did not allow Trimble to restrict his colleagues' rights in hopes of securing a particular political objective.

Carswell noted that IRA disarmament was only one objective of the 1998 peace accord, while cross-border cooperation between the two governments in Ireland was another. Trimble, he said, was harming one goal of the peace accord in hopes of progressing another.

``It must follow that as a matter of law it cannot be sustained as a valid exercise of that discretionary power,'' Carswell said in affirming the Jan. 30 verdict of High Court Judge Brian Kerr, who backed Sinn Fein's claim.

Trimble, a former law lecturer at Queen's University of Belfast, said that the Sinn Fein ministers were ``inherently ineligible'' to represent the government because of the IRA's insistence on retaining its hidden arsenal.

He said all members had to be committed to nonviolence as a condition of their office. He contended that the Sinn Fein ministers _ among them Education Minister Martin McGuinness, the IRA's former commander _ wished to stay in office ``with a private army at their backs.''

But McGuinness said Trimble would lose again if the House of Lords agreed to hear another appeal.

``He can go wherever he likes. He is not going to succeed. The two judgments made against him are very clear,'' McGuinness said.

Friday's judgment was only the latest effort by rivals in the coalition government so sort out their arguments by suing each other.

On Thursday, Sinn Fein lost a Belfast High Court challenge to Britain's decision to permit the British flag to fly above government buildings in Northern Ireland only on special days, such as birthdays of royal family members.

The court ruled that Britain's policy tried to strike a reasonable balance between Protestants, who wanted the flag to fly every day, and Catholics who wanted all British symbols removed.
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