With the ruling coalition facing possible collapse, Britain said it would carry out a review of the difficulties to enable the Protestant-Roman Catholic power-sharing government to be restored quickly.
Exploiting a legal loophole for a second time, Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid announced he would suspend the government's powers at midnight and return authority to local hands Sunday. The effect of the single-day suspension was to cancel a Saturday deadline for the four-party coalition to elect a new Protestant leader.
He said in a statement, "I hope to be able to complete the review which is required under the Northern Ireland Act 2000 so that the operation of the devolved institutions can be restored very quickly."
Last week's attacks on the United States had "underlined the importance of making a decisive start now to resolving the issue of paramilitary weapons once and for all," he said
But Protestant lawmakers say they won't vote for a new leader by the new Nov. 3 deadline, either, unless the IRA disarms as the 1998 peace accord intended. Reid appealed for the outlawed group to start in the next few weeks.
Shortly before Reid's announcement, unidentified security officials in Northern Ireland told the Press Association, Britain's news agency, that they expected the IRA to offer to get rid of two weapons dumps. Both dumps in the Republic of Ireland have already been shown in secret to foreign diplomats. The report said the IRA appeared ready to allow disarmament officials to pave over or clear out these dumps by the end of the year.
Such reports have surfaced periodically in Northern Ireland since June. But Northern Ireland's police commander, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, said Friday his intelligence officers had "nothing to suggest that an act of IRA (weapons) decommissioning is imminent."
Reid, who previously issued a one-day suspension Aug. 11 to extend the vote deadline by six weeks, pledged in a statement he would not exercise this option again. He said the government's survival now depended in part on whether the IRA fulfilled its 16-month-old pledge to begin giving up its hidden bunkers of weaponry.
Reid was scheduled to address a news conference Friday night in Brussels, Belgium, where he was attending an emergency European Union conference to discuss the international response to last week's terrorist atrocities in the United States.
Although reaction to the U.S. attacks had overshadowed recent efforts in Northern Ireland to keep the 21-month-old administration on track, Reid said, the province's feuding politicians now had a clear new opportunity to resolve the arguments undermining their power-sharing experiment.
If they reached Nov. 3 without a breakthrough, Rei suggested, he would have only two choices - neither welcome.
He could return Northern Ireland to direct British control indefinitely and keep the administration and legislature in cold storage for months, even years. Or he could order their immediate dissolution in favor of new elections that would probably produce gains for the most hard-line parties on each side of the community.
Reid's announcement had been widely expected, and rival Protestant and Catholic leaders criticized the move in advance.
Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, who supported last month's one-day suspension, said another six-week extension appeared pointless. Under mounting pressure from party hard-liners, Trimble resigned as the administration's Protestant leader July 1 and has refused to stand for re-election unless the IRA started to scrap weapons as the 3-year-old Good Friday accord proposed.
The IRA this week offered to renew talks with disarmament officials, but gave no indication when - if ever - the outlawed group would scrap any weapons.
Trimble predicted it wouldn't happen without sustained international pressure, which he said was unlikely given the world's focus on the American response to terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams condemned Britain's latest intervention as a violation of the 1998 pact. He said the IRA would start to disarm only if Britain and Protestants met several Sinn Fein-IRA demands ranging from tougher police reform to more British troop withdrawals and base closures in Catholic areas.
"The politics of pressure, particularly the politics of pressure against the IRA, is counterproductive," Adams said.
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