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British freeze rule by Belfast; Northern Ireland assembly halted over IRA refusal to disarm; Step was expected; London ignores guerrillas' late offer to give up weapons


LONDON -- Northern Ireland was stuck in political limbo last night after the British government froze the province's 72-day-old assembly of Protestants and Roman Catholics and reimposed rule from London.

Despite an 11th-hour bid by the Irish Republican Army to resolve the contentious issue of giving up arms, Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson took the expected step of suspending the province's hard-won political institutions to keep the peace process from unraveling.

The IRA made its bid when one of its representatives met with the panel overseeing paramilitary disarmament and said the guerrilla force was willing to put its weapons "beyond use," a phrase that signaled the IRA was displaying serious intent to surrender its arms.

"We welcome the IRA's belief that the single state of 'perpetual crisis' can be averted and that the issue of arms can be resolved," the panel told the British and Irish governments in a statement released a few hours after Mandelson froze the assembly.

The IRA initiative provided the prospect that the panel headed by Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain could "fulfill the substance of its mandate," the statement said.

The panel's assessment was in stark contrast to its Jan. 31 report, released earlier yesterday, in which it said the IRA hadn't moved on arms and raised the possibility of abandoning its mission if the IRA apparently wouldn't disarm.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the latest assessment was significant, but Mandelson said the last-ditch proposal "doesn't transform things until specifics are agreed between General de Chastelain and the IRA."

For now, it's too little, too late, a theme that had been running through a day of high drama, as governments in London, Dublin and Washington labored behind the scenes to try to prop up the Belfast assembly.

Before and after

Less than an hour before Mandelson froze the local government, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said progress on arms had been made.

Once direct rule was reimposed, however, Adams said, "This party has worked day and night with others to establish this position, and at the point it could have moved on, it was pulled."

After sidestepping the arms issue during the province's peace process, politicians were forced to confront the IRA's reluctance to hand over weapons, even a token cache, despite the creation of a fledgling assembly that was beginning to forge once-unthinkable links between historically implacable foes.

(The word "disarmament" isn't used in official circles. It's called "decommissioning.")

The terrorist troubles that have bedeviled Northern Ireland for decades and left 3,600 dead have been replaced by a fragile peace in a community of majority Protestants and minority Roman Catholics.

Process 'dogged' by weapons

Mandelson said the weapons issue "has dogged the process. It has sapped confidence in the institutions, and we really have got to resolve it once and for all."

In quickly imposing legislation passed Thursday by Britain's House of Commons, Mandelson said he hoped that the suspension would be "for a short time," and he sought to offer reassurance that there was no threat to the landmark 1998 Good Friday peace accord.

"I hope that with goodwill and in a measured and in a calm way, people in the coming days will be able to build on the progress that has been made, put all their best efforts together, so we can resolve this issue," Mandelson said in Belfast.

Boxed in

Mandelson appeared to have little room to maneuver.

He effectively froze political life in Northern Ireland to keep the peace process alive.

A cooling-off period and a review of the Good Friday agreement are likely. No one is sure how long that will take.

"There is no such thing as a short review," said Seamus Mallon, who held the No. 2 post in the local assembly and represents the Catholic-led Social and Democratic Labor Party.

The province, for the time being, will be ruled as it has for much of the past 30 years, by the British Cabinet's Northern Ireland secretary.

The local assembly and top ministerial posts go into suspension. So do the North-South bodies that set up links between the six northern counties and the Irish Republic to the south.

Two key initiatives, release of paramilitary prisoners and reform of Northern Ireland's heavily armed police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, will proceed.

If he hadn't suspended the assembly, Mandelson probably would have lost a key political ally in Northern Ireland, David Trimble, leader of the Protestant-dominated Ulster Unionist party.

Trimble faced the prospect of acting on a letter of resignation or being pulled down by his rank and file.

Trimble's gamble

Trimble, first minister of the province's assembly, had staked his career on entering the assembly and serving with Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, despite a lack of movement on guerrilla arms.

To keep pressure on the IRA, Trimble postdated a letter of resignation as first minister and scheduled a meeting for today with his Ulster Unionist ruling council, at which he presumably would have acted on his letter of resignation.

The meeting of the 860-member council is still scheduled, and Trimble is expected to stay on.

Trimble said his party gave the paramilitaries the opportunity to put aside arms "and rely solely on the ballot box, and when we come back from suspension, we must come back to a state of affairs where people rely simply, purely, on the ballot box and [where] arms are not longer an issue at all."

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