Prime ministers discuss pulling the plug on Northern Ireland's government

Wednesday, September 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) _ Britain and Ireland on Wednesday discussed pulling the plug on Northern Ireland's power-sharing government, the cornerstone of a 1998 peace accord that is being undermined by the Irish Republican Army's refusal to disarm.

Britain was expected to reimpose direct control of Northern Ireland by the weekend, the deadline for the province's lawmakers to elect a Protestant to fill the vacant top post in the government.

Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble resigned as the government's senior minister in July. His Protestant party has refused to nominate Trimble or any other replacement unless the IRA starts to scrap weapons as the American-brokered 1998 pact intended. But the outlawed group and its allied Sinn Fein party have balked in the face of sporadic international pressure.

The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, discussed options at Blair's London office Wednesday, and expressed hope that the Ulster Unionists and the Sinn Fein-IRA movement would both take the necessary steps to sustain the 1998 accord.

``It is precisely because we want to leave terrorism and violence behind in Northern Ireland ... that we want this peace process to succeed,'' Blair said at a news conference with Ahern.

The British last month delayed one deadline for a leadership vote in Northern Ireland's legislature by taking power away for a single day. That legal maneuver bought another six weeks for negotiations, ending Saturday.

Britain could announce another single-day suspension of power and create yet more time for talks and a move from the IRA.

But the international crisis over terrorist strikes in the United States has left Britain, particularly Blair, little time to focus on Northern Ireland's seemingly endless arguments. Ahern thanked the British leader for sparing the time Wednesday during ``an enormously busy schedule.''

An indefinite suspension would keep the four-party government effectively in cold storage in anticipation of the day when the IRA made new disarmament commitments and Protestants in turn agreed to resume sharing power with Sinn Fein.

Britain also has the option of allowing a vote to elect a new Northern Ireland leader to go ahead and, when it failed, to call new elections for the legislature.

That is not an attractive option for Britain now because of the strong showing in June's national election by the hard-line parties in the administration, Sinn Fein on the Catholic side and the Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists on the Protestant side.