The suspension follows weeks of increasing tension and came one day ahead of a threatened walkout by First Minister David Trimble and his Ulster Unionist Party, the largest pro-British political party.
“[I]t has become clear that decisive action is needed in order to safeguard the progress made and tackle the remaining challenges,” John Reid, Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary, said in a statement Monday. “I hope the decision I have taken today marks a breathing space — a chance to gather strength — before that process moves forward once again.”
The latest crisis erupted after reports emerged of spying by the militant Irish Republican Army on members of the British government. A messenger in the Northern Ireland Office reportedly copied sensitive documents from British and Pro-British officials and gave them to a senior Sinn Fein member and the Provisional IRA. When news of scandal broke, Trimble threatened to pull his party out of the power-sharing government unless the governments threw Sinn Fein out of the assembly.
Reid indirectly addressed the issue of collusion between the paramilitaries and the political parties in his statement announcing the suspension.
“The recent difficulties in Northern Ireland stem from a loss of trust on both sides of the community. In particular it is essential that concerns about the commitment to exclusively democratic and non-violent means are removed,” Reid said. “The time has come for people to face up to the choice between violence and democracy.”
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams blasted the move, saying it was a victory for those opposed to the 1998 Good Friday accord that set out the framework for political peace in the region.
“It is a serious crisis,” Adams told reporters after the announcement. “What [Reid] is doing is accommodating resistance to the Good Friday agreement.”
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern issued a joint statement saying they were “deeply saddened” by Monday’s suspension, but that they both hoped the Northern Ireland government would “be restored as soon as possible.”
The two leaders also reiterated their belief that the Good Friday Agreement was pivotal to peace in the region.
“The Agreement remains the template for political progress, has been endorsed by the people of Ireland, North and South, and is the only sustainable basis for a fair and honorable accommodation between unionists [Pro-British] and nationalists [Pro-Irish]. We are determined that it will succeed,” the two said.
In Washington, President Bush echoed the call of the two leaders, saying he agreed, “There is simply no place for paramilitaries in a democratic society.”
Mr. Bush also pledged U.S. support for implementation of the peace accord.
“I welcome the continued close cooperation of the British and Irish governments as they work toward the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. The United States stands ready to assist their efforts,” the president said in a statement. “The Good Friday Agreement remains the best framework for a lasting peace in Northern Ireland.”
Aided by two new junior ministers, Britain’s Northern Ireland Office will take over the day-to-day running of the province as of midnight local time Monday.