Britain ready to transfer home rule to N. Ireland; But Unionist suspicions of Sinn Fein double-cross could derail agreement


LONDON -- Britain put in motion yesterday plans to start the new Northern Ireland government under the freshly revived peace agreement, but immediate progress was halted by a dispute between the rival Ulster Unionist and Sinn Fein parties.

"We are beginning -- just beginning -- to see the outline of a new Northern Ireland," Peter Mandelson, Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland, said in laying out the steps he will take to have home-rule powers transferred from the British Parliament in London to the Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast by Dec. 2.

Going forward with those actions depends upon the outcome of balloting by the quarrelsome Ulster Unionist Party in Belfast on Saturday. Its leader, David Trimble, hopes to gain support for the plan mediated by former Sen. George J. Mitchell in his just-completed rescue of the long-deadlocked peace accord.

The challenge facing Trimble was complicated yesterday by reports that a Sinn Fein officer had told a Boston newspaper the party was not fully committed to disarmament of the Irish Republican Army. Trimble needs assurance of disarmament to sell the deal to his distrustful Unionists.

Trimble told the British Broadcasting Corp. yesterday that if such a "double-cross" was occurring, he would cancel the meeting of his party.

According to a report in the Boston Herald that appeared on the front pages of British newspapers, Pat Doherty, a Sinn Fein vice president and member of its negotiating team in the 11-week Mitchell talks, said the IRA had no intention of disarming.

He reportedly said that Sinn Fein did not believe Britain would carry through with its sanction of shutting down the new Northern Ireland government if the guerrilla force failed to dismantle its weapons by May, as called for in the treaty.

The IRA has maintained a cease-fire for more than two years, and the week before last, in an act that enabled Mitchell to seal his rescue mission with success, the underground group said it would agree for the first time to discuss disarmament by appointing a representative to the independent panel charged with dismantling paramilitary arsenals.

Sinn Fein issued a statement from Doherty in the United States yesterday expressing "dismay and deep concern" over the reporting of his remarks. He said he had been quoted out of context, adding: "Sinn Fein is not in the business of double-crossing or misleading anyone. Such a course of action would be disastrous. We are in the business of making peace."

But Trimble said he found the response inadequate.

Trimble's task is to build support for his decision to abandon the long-standing Ulster Unionist demand -- summarized as "no guns, no government" -- that there be an actual turnover of weapons by the IRA.

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