The move would end the new assembly there and the limited "self-government" granted by London in the Good Friday agreement.
The Blair government issued an ultimatum February 4 that either the Irish Republican Army (IRA) begin handing over its weapons or the entire governmental structures set up under the agreement would be scrapped.
Blair's Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson, announced details of the plan to the House of Commons shortly after Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and the party's two ministers in the Northern Ireland Assembly emerged from a meeting with Blair at Downing Street.
The bill was expected to go to the House of Lords, then to the queen for "Royal Assent" on February 11. Thus, if no last-minute agreement is reached, the assembly would be dissolved prior to a meeting of the pro-British Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) set to convene the following day.
The IRA is neither a member of the assembly nor a signer of the Good Friday accord. It fought an armed campaign to end British military occupation of the six counties and stands for a united, independent Ireland. It has observed a cease-fire since July 1997. The IRA issued a statement that said, "Those who have once again made the political process conditional on the decommissioning of silenced IRA arms are responsible for creating the current difficulties and for keeping the peace process in a state of perpetual crisis," adding that the "peace process is under no threat from the IRA."
In contrast, London maintains heavily armed forces in the country and, in at least one area, British Army and cop activity has increased dramatically.
The April 1998 Good Friday agreement provided for the setting up of the Northern Ireland Assembly and a new executive with powers over health, education, housing, and other matters. Control of the army and police remained with Westminster.
Reflecting the advances of the national struggle, Sinn Fein, the party leading the battle for a united Ireland, won enough votes for the assembly to have two ministers on the executive council.
The UUP, led by David Trimble, and the Ulster Democratic Party (DUP) of Ian Paisley responded to this development by blocking the formation of the executive for a year and a half.
Under the slogan "no guns, no government," the unionists demanded the IRA give up weapons before Sinn Fein could be admitted. In finally agreeing to sit on the body with Sinn Fein, the UUP unilaterally imposed the condition that the IRA begin surrendering weapons by the beginning of February. Opponents of the Irish freedom struggle charge Sinn Fein with being "the political wing" of the IRA, a claim Sinn Fein denies.
The Labour government's moves are an effort to shore up the Trimble leadership of the UUP, which is one of the historic props of British rule. The party is deeply divided because of the gains made by nationalists. Trimble, who is also First Minister of the executive, has threatened to walk out of the body unless the IRA surrendered its arms.
Adams of Sinn Fein issued a statement published in the Irish Voice February 9. London's move "comes from the decision by the British government to act on an Ulster Unionist Party unilateral deadline on the weapons issue," he said, adding the "premise on which this crisis is predicated is an entirely bogus one."
Sinn Fein, Adams said, sees the Good Friday agreement "as a compromise." He told Blair in the meeting that "his government's involvement in my country and how he managed British policy in Ireland was going to be the biggest challenge of his term or terms as leader."
In the statement Adams said, "The field policies by which British rule in Ireland sustained Unionism were based on marginalizing and demonizing the rest of us" and threatened to withdraw from support of the Good Friday process if London pursued its plans.
While hypocritically demanding that the IRA disarm, London has stepped up its use of troops and colonial police, spying activities, and routine harassment in the rural area of South Armagh.
In an article in Republican News, Toni Carragher, a leader of the South Armagh Farmers and Residents Committee, reports that the deployment of British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) cops has increased by 75 percent since the IRA cease-fire in 1997. "Helicopter activity, the stopping and searching of the people of our community, both young and old, by the British Army/RUC is now at an all time high," Carragher said. Meanwhile, army and RUC bases are continuously being refurbished and extra surveillance and infrared cameras are being installed.
"The only threat to the Peace Process is the continued unwarranted presence of the British Army and the RUC in South Armagh," Carragher concluded.
At the annual Bloody Sunday march in Derry, Sinn Fein leader Bairbre de Brun said the demonstration in 1972 had been "about civil rights and here we are 28 years later still marching for our rights and our dignity and to be treated as first and not second class citizens."
This theme was echoed by other marchers. One man from Derry said he was opposed to the IRA decommissioning its weapons because "it would mean that the IRA was saying that it and not the British were responsible for the conflict. They're asking for the IRA to surrender."
Joe Cox from Fermanagh said that "if disarmament is to be discussed it should effect everyone: all the loyalist paramilitaries and the British army too. The British have armed the Protestants to the hilt since the plantation, and turned a blind eye to their use of weapons against Catholics over the years. They have considered it their absolute right to hold and use weapons.
"They have the same military mentality as the white settlers in South Africa," Cox said. "What we need is a democratic settlement. There is no way that the issue of arms decommissioning should be used to topple the executive, in the way that the British are threatening."
The continued use of weapons by unionist forces was brought home last year with the murder of Rosemary Nelson, a human rights lawyer who acted on behalf of Catholic residents of the Garvaghy Road in their struggle to prevent sectarian marches from going through their community.
Cox added that since the current cease-fire there has been a "charm offensive" by the army where he lives in Fermanagh. "They even stop and say 'hello' to you," he said, but noted that there has been an increase in the number of troops on foot patrols from a half dozen to at least 15. The British continue to build new military installations as well.
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