Northern Ireland Crisis Blocks Elections

british isles map highlighting london and northern ireland
Elections to form a new power-sharing administration for Northern Ireland will be postponed, the Irish government confirmed Thursday in a blow to the province's 1998 peace accord.

Justice Minister Michael McDowell, speaking after discussions between his government and Britain, said the planned May 29 election to Northern Ireland's moribund legislature would not go ahead. He gave no new date.

Britain's governor for Northern Ireland, Paul Murphy, was scheduled to discuss details of the delay later Thursday.

The move followed six months of negotiations designed to persuade the Irish Republican Army to make clear-cut commitments to cease hostilities and disarm. Britain and Ireland agreed that without such commitments, Protestant voters would turn to hard-line Unionist representatives unwilling to share power with Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams responded with a series of statements that offered general pledges regarding IRA intentions, but Britain and the major Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, rejected them as too vague.

Speaking minutes before McDowell's announcement, Adams decried Britain's rejection of his latest statement offered Wednesday, when he pledged that the IRA would oppose any activities that "undermine in any way the peace process and the Good Friday agreement."

But as with earlier statements, the IRA position didn't specify the activities it would cease, nor even admit that the outlawed group had been pursuing them.

The IRA has twice put caches of weapons "beyond use," but has yet to fully disarm. Some unionist militants in Northern Ireland have made no moves to disarm.

Among the actions Britain and Ireland want stopped are gathering intelligence on potential targets, training recruits, smuggling weapons, and attacking criminal opponents within the IRA's hard-line Catholic turf.

"I am now being asked to itemize all of these activities," Adams said Thursday. "But what I don't know, you see, is what part of 'no activities' do the (British and Irish) governments not understand?"

The effort to share power between the province's British Protestant and Irish Catholic blocs — the central goal of the 1998 peace deal — came to fruition in December 1999 but suffered repeated breakdowns, most recently in October. Police that month charged four people, including Sinn Fein's top legislative aide, with stealing documents on potential IRA targets.

Complicating the situation this week was the revelation, in the Times of London and other papers, of transcripts of secret tapes of phone conversations between advisers to Blair and top Sinn Fein officials.

The chummy tone of the talks angered Unionists. The fact that British intelligence taped them at all irked Sinn Fein.

Under terms of the 1998 deal, officeholders in any Northern Ireland administration are supposed to demonstrate a commitment "to exclusively peaceful and democratic means."

The four-party, 12-member administration included two officials from Sinn Fein, including Martin McGuinness, whom police and historians have identified as an IRA commander since 1977.

Britain and Ireland fear that if the May 29 election proceeded without new IRA peace commitments, Protestants would desert Trimble's Ulster Unionists in favor of the Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, who oppose the whole 1998 deal.

To be formed, a power-sharing coalition requires majority support from both the Catholic and Protestant sides of the 108-seat legislature. In the 1998 vote, Trimble's bloc had 30 lawmakers compared to Paisley's 28, but election results and polls since then have consistently moved in Paisley's favor.

Democratic Unionist lawmaker Nigel Dodds condemned the election's cancellation.

"This is the sort of activity you get in a country which knows nothing about democracy, where leaders interfere with people's right to choose when they think the result will not be to their liking," Dodds said.

"Make no mistake about it, there is only one reason for this: Tony Blair has listened to the Ulster Unionists pleading to put off the elections in order to save David Trimble's skin," he said.