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Saturday, 13 October, 2001, 11:16 GMT 12:16 UK
Political process in crisis
By BBC NI political correspondent Mark Simpson

When new peace walls are being built in Belfast, it is a sure sign that the political process is in difficulties.

The Good Friday Agreement was supposed to lead to the pulling down of old barriers, not to the building of new ones.

But three-and-a-half years on, there is no sign that inter-community strife is going to be a thing of the past. A new wall is to be put up in north Belfast to help keep rival factions apart.

A few miles away at Stormont's Parliament Buildings, the rival political parties do not have to live together - but they do have to try to work together, and it is proving more problematic by the day.

Ceasefires

The long list of problems includes the absence of IRA decommissioning, the threatened resignation of Ulster Unionist ministers and the end of the UDA and LVF ceasefires.

In many ways, the announcement by the Secretary of State, Dr John Reid, that he no longer recognised the UDA and LVF ceasefires was no big surprise.

John Reid
John Reid: Big decision looming

The recent campaign of loyalist violence meant that it was always going to be a case of when, not if, the ceasefires were going to declared null and void.

The big danger for the secretary of state was that by saying he no longer recognised the truces, he may have made a bad situation even worse.

But given the scale of the violence, and its sectarian nature, Dr Reid clearly felt he had no option.

Limited options

Another big decision for him is on the horizon - what to do if unionist ministers resign from the power-sharing executive.

Again, his options will be limited. The most likely decision will be an unlimited suspension of devolution and review of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

If a review does take place, someone will be needed to chair it.

The former US Senator George Mitchell took charge of the last major review, but few would blame him if he suddenly went ex-directory and refused to answer his telephone for another year, just in case his services were required again.


George Mitchell: Will he answer a talks call?

The government will be hoping that a review can be avoided. And the best - perhaps, the only - means of avoiding a review would be a start to IRA decommissioning.

Most observers agree that an act of decommissioning is now more likely than ever before. The question is: when is it going to happen?

Very few people know the answer to that question, and those that do, are not saying.

However, one thing is clear - the escalation of loyalist violence is not making it any easier for republicans to start putting their weapons beyond use.

The Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, is prepared to give the IRA a little more time to do it, but in the meantime, his party's phased withdrawal from positions of power will continue.

Only a dramatic turn-of-events in the coming days can prevent devolution from collapsing before the end of this month.

At some time in the future, when the secretary of state looks back at the month of October 2001, he will probably regard it as one of the most testing periods of his political career.

Unless there is a last-minute breakthrough, this will go down in history as the month that power-sharing broke down, and old barriers rose up.

See also:

13 Oct 01 | Northern Ireland
Politicans assess ceasefire end
02 Mar 01 | Northern Ireland
Unionists step up sanctions
20 Jan 01 | Northern Ireland
Sinn Fein fears further sanctions
22 Jan 01 | Northern Ireland
Anger over British-Irish meeting delay
28 Oct 00 | Northern Ireland
Unionist plan gets hostile response
15 Dec 00 | Northern Ireland
Trimble ban criticised in court
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