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Tuesday, 8 May, 2001, 16:12 GMT
Trimble threat sets campaign tone
The calling of the general election has been overshadowed in Northern Ireland by the First Minister David Trimble's dramatic announcement that he will resign from his post if there is no IRA decommissioning.
The Ulster Unionist leader made the revelation in the assembly on Tuesday morning hours before Tony Blair said he was going to the country on 7 June.
The failure of the IRA to hand over weapons in the peace process has been a stumbling block to progress and has been particularly difficult for the Ulster Unionist Party.
They are split over the Good Friday Agreement and how long they should stay in government with Sinn Fein in the absence of the handover of weapons.
Mr Trimble is under huge electoral pressure from the "No" camp within his own party and the DUP.
Although he has denied it the threatened resignation is being seen as a cranking up of the battle for the unionist vote.
BBC NI's political editor Stephen Grimason said the timing of the Trimble announcement was impossible to divorce from the election campaign:"This will be seen as a pre-emptive strike against the DUP as much as against the IRA.
"There have been times during the peace process where the parties have put their own interests above the process as a whole and this is one of those occasions."
Mr Trimble said he had lodged a letter with the speaker resigning as first minister from 1 July.
Mr Trimble was referring to the IRA statement made last May as a result of the negotiations at Hillsborough Castle, in County Down.
In the Good Friday Agreement, June is the deadline for the completion of paramilitary disarmament.
However, to date, only a handful of weapons have been handed over and these were from the paramilitary Loyalist Volunteer Force.
As recently as Sunday, Mr Trimble accused republicans of gambling with the Northern Ireland peace process.
Downing Street said Mr Trimble's announcement was "highly regrettable".
A spokesman said Mr Trimble must make his own decision but the government was hopeful and determined to make progess on outstanding issues by June.
Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness described Mr Trimble's actions as "disastrous''.
He said the First Minister's threat will make decommissioning from the IRA less likely rather than more likely.
The move was derided by anti-Agreement unionists. Peter Robinson of the DUP said it was "one of the most pathetic election stunts history has ever seen".
He said he believed the electorate would not buy into it.
Robert McCartney of the United Kingdom Unionist Party said Mr Trimble had tried to "fool the electorate" with the "same stunt" before and it was significant that the date of 1 July was after the election was over.
The Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon of the SDLP said that Mr Trimble had informed him just two minutes before making his announcement.
"I would have, had I had time to read the statement, tried to persuade him otherwise," he said.
"However I have made it clear in the past my view that unilateral deadlines rarely produce the outcome that they are intended to achieve."
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14 Mar 01 | Northern Ireland
IRA meets arms body
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