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Britain Suspends Northern Ireland Government

Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid said today Britain would withdraw authority from the region’s home-rule government effective at midnight local time.

The decision exploits a legal technicality that could keep home rule from collapsing altogether.

The region’s four-party government has been without a leader from the Protestant Ulster Unionist party since David Trimble resigned as the coalition’s “first minister” July 1. The deadline to replace Trimble would have been Saturday.

“As so often in Northern Ireland, we have reached what appears to be an immovable date. … But I believe that dates and deadlines are here to serve the people, not the other way round,” Reid told reporters.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he supported the decision.

“When we have come so far, I think most people would agree with both governments that we should allow the parties more time to try to bridge the remaining gaps,” he said in a statement from Mexico, where he is vacationing.

Sinn Fein, one of Northern Ireland’s four main political parties, which is believed to have ties to the Irish Republican Army, denounced the move.

Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander who serves as education minister for the Northern Ireland government, said Britain risked sparking increased anger from Catholics for suspending “the people’s institutions, even for a day.”

This is the second time Britain has pulled the plug on the region’s 20-month old coalition, set up by the landmark 1998 Good Friday Peace Accord. Last year, Britain suspended home rule for three months after a similar dispute over IRA disarmament.

With today’s move, the Northern Ireland parties have another six weeks to iron out a long-running dispute over disarming the guerrilla IRA.

With help from international mediators, the IRA agreed Monday to a secret method for disposing of its weapons, but the group hasn’t said when such a disarmament might begin.

Trimble cited the IRA’s reluctance to disarm, despite previous assurances they would do so, when he resigned last month. He said the Ulster Unionists would not appoint the replacement necessary for the government to continue its business until the IRA begins to put its weapons “beyond use.”

“We’re glad to see that the IRA has taken a significant step toward decommissioning, but it hasn’t actually begun decommissioning, and of course we want to see that happen,” he said Monday.

Last week, leaders from Britain and Ireland unveiled a plan they said could keep the coalition from collapsing. The blueprint calls for IRA disarmament, but contains commitments from the British government to close specific army bases, offer amnesty for IRA members on the run and strengthen plans to reform the region’s mostly Protestant police force.

They said such moves could satisfy demands from Sinn Fein and the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party.