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Monday, 22 April, 2002, 15:19 GMT 16:19 UK
Potential crisis over ceasefire status
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By Martina Purdy
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent
line

Just when David Trimble thought it was safe to go back to power-sharing with Sinn Fein, he's once again gripped by political danger.

After six months of relative stability at Stormont, underpinned by two acts of IRA decommissioning, a new potential crisis is looming.

This time, not over decommissioning, but over the solidity of the IRA ceasefire.

Allegations of IRA involvement in the break-in at Castlereagh police base, the discovery of IRA intelligence files containing details of senior Conservative Party politicians, and suspicions of republican involvement in last week's murder of Tyrone man Barney McDonald, have unsettled the process.

David Trimble is under pressure to get answers
David Trimble is under pressure to get answers

Just how much damage this has done is difficult to assess.

David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, made clear after meeting police chiefs on Monday, that the effect of two acts of decommissioning had been dissipated by the speculation.

In other words, that fragile unionist confidence, so critical to continued power-sharing, is being eroded.

But so far he has refused to engage in knee-jerk reactions.

Instead, Mr Trimble, an academic lawyer turned politician, has preferred to focus on the facts, and the existence of evidence to substantiate the speculation.

To that end, he and his party have tabled an Assembly motion calling on Secretary of State John Reid to make a determination on the IRA ceasefire.

That motion, along with a DUP motion to exclude Sinn Fein, will be considered by the Assembly's business committee on Tuesday.

'No ceasefire threat'

In the meantime, Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid has said he has no reason to believe the IRA ceasefire is under threat.

It will be interesting to see the SDLP's reaction to the UUP motion. Will they back it?

As for the DUP motion, it's doomed to failure without SDLP support, which won't be forthcoming.

For its part, the IRA has insisted it is not responsible for Castlereagh and that its ceasefire remains intact.

Gerry Adams has denied any IRA link
Gerry Adams has denied any IRA link

Sinn Fein leaders have echoed this message, apparently confident no evidence will emerge to embarrass them or undermine whatever credibility their words carry.

Some sceptics are already suggesting it is not confidence, merely bravado, recalling how adamant Sinn Fein was that Niall Connolly, one of the so-called Columbia-three wasn't its Cuba representative.

Are republicans simply convinced that they can get away with just about anything because the government isn't going to question the IRA ceasefire short of a serious bomb attack in London?

What of their claim all this is "dirty tricks" by British intelligence?

On the defensive

The difficulty for them is that it might be believed by many nationalists, but not by most unionists.

Whatever the truth, Sinn Fein has been forced onto the defensive, and is facing awkward questions from the Ulster Unionist leader.

Even if Mr Trimble accepts Sinn Fein's bona fides, there is no guarantee his party will.

His leadership and hold over his party is fragile; there are plenty of anti-Agreement Ulster Unionists looking for a reason to end power-sharing with Sinn Fein.

And with the DUP keeping the pressure up, Mr Trimble's internal critics may attempt to force his hand - at least into imposing sanctions. It's been a tactic that Mr Trimble has employed to stave off internal challenge.

New uncertainty

Should this occur, what will be the cure? Another arms move? Hardly.

Decommissioning, which took years of negotiation and political manoeuvring to achieve, resolved the last crisis.

But its impact appears limited and its credibility as a good measure of IRA intentions may have diminished.

So what will fix the next crisis?

Would mere words from Sinn Fein be enough or did Mr Trimble give a hint as to the remedy when he spoke on Monday (not for the first time) about IRA disbandment?

While Gerry Adams has spoken about the day when the IRA retires, and some commentators described the recent tribute to the IRA dead as a retirement party, such a demand from a unionist leadership is likely to prove problematic.

It was almost business as usual at the assembly, but with the atmosphere once again poisoned with mistrust and polluted with fear, there is no longer certainty that the executive is sailing into stability.

If you have a comment about this item, send it to politicsni@bbc.co.uk


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See also:

22 Apr 02 | Northern Ireland
'Come clean' call over IRA activity
21 Apr 02 | Northern Ireland
IRA says ceasefire intact
19 Apr 02 | Northern Ireland
Analysis: Story behind the break-in
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