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Northern Ireland
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  N. Ireland Deadline Extended

By T. R. Reid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 9, 1999; Page A09

BELFAST, March 8—With Northern Ireland's politicians still battling over the problem of Irish Republican Army disarmament, the British government today gave them yet another extension of the deadline to form the new provincial government envisioned by last year's peace agreement.

Marjorie Mowlam, the British cabinet minister in charge of Northern Ireland, said the province would be given until Good Friday -- that is, April 2 -- to carry out the terms of last year's Good Friday political accord. Mowlam conceded that the parties involved would not be able to resolve their impasse by Wednesday, the latest of several deadlines imposed by London.

The impasse centers largely on demands by Protestant leaders that the IRA -- a largely Catholic, Irish nationalist guerrilla group -- commit itself to giving up its arms before members of Sinn Fein, its political wing, are allowed to take seats in the new government.

Mowlam did not say what would happen if there is no agreement by April 2, but she warned, "There is no Plan B."

There have been concerns that the peace plan could fall apart if the disarmament issue is not settled soon, but the agreement is so strongly backed by the people of Northern Ireland that it would be hard for the politicians to abandon it.

A more likely scenario is that Protestant unionists, who favor continuation of Northern Ireland's political union with Britain, and Catholic nationalists, who want the north to form a single nation with the Republic of Ireland, will work out some face-saving agreement, perhaps next week when the talks move to Washington.

Most of the province's leading politicians plan to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in Washington, and there is broad hope that President Clinton, who is widely popular in Ireland, can help the contending parties to work out some kind of deal.

Mowlam expressed that hope today. "The time in America, I think, will give people space . . . that could lead to a solution," she said.

Under the Good Friday settlement, Northern Ireland's 1.6 million residents last year elected a 108-member assembly that is supposed to take over governmental responsibilities in the province that are now held by the British government.

Today had been set as the deadline for the transfer of governmental authority, but the Northern Ireland Assembly is not ready to govern because its leaders have not yet established the 10-member cabinet that will wield executive power.

The cabinet has been informally chosen, with membership from four different parties. But the Protestant unionists, led by David Trimble, the province's senior elected politician, say they will not establish the cabinet until the IRA -- which has fought a violent guerrilla war for more than two decades to end British rule here -- begins to turn over some of its weapons.

Underground armies on both sides of the issue -- Protestant unionists and nationalist Irish -- amassed large arsenals of guns, ammunition and explosives during a sectarian war in that killed an estimated 3,500 people. The Good Friday agreement calls for the opposing paramilitary forces to give up their weapons, but the IRA has refused.

Sinn Fein leaders, eager to assume the two seats their party has won in the cabinet, say it is wrong to make IRA disarmament a condition for creation of the provincial government. Sinn Fein argues that the letter of the Good Friday accord does not require disarmament before the cabinet is created; the unionists, contend that the spirit of the agreement calls for reciprocal action. Neither side has shown any inclination to compromise.

"We are in crisis, big-time," said Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

Trimble has scheduled a meeting on the issue with Adams on Tuesday. By Northern Ireland's standards, even that small gesture is a piece of history. Trimble has barely exchanged a word with any Sinn Fein member over the past three years of negotiations.

Mowlam was in Dublin today to sign four treaties between Britain and Ireland that are designed to increase political cooperation between the two countries on Northern Ireland matters.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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