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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Trimble Will Wait for IRA Guns

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Negotiators launched a last-ditch effort Friday to bridge the gulf of mistrust blocking a new Protestant-Catholic government for Northern Ireland, which forms the heart of last year's troubled peace accord.

David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, said his party was prepared to postpone forming the government indefinitely until the Irish Republican Army promised to commit itself to a timetable for "decommissioning," or surrendering, its arms.

"If they're going to force society to wait, well, we will wait,'' Trimble said, adding that the alternative to securing IRA decommissioning was "to decommission democracy.''

Spokesmen for British and Irish Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern said they planned a formal statement later outlining the week's progress and the potentially dangerous path ahead after a weeklong negotiating marathon that Blair had expected to produce a breakthrough by midnight Wednesday.

The Ulster Unionists, Northern Ireland's major British Protestant party, demand a start to IRA disarmament as the price for sharing power with the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party. But Sinn Fein insists the government's unconditional, immediate formation is the only way to encourage an IRA move.

As he arrived at the Stormont venue, Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness criticized the Ulster Unionists for rejecting a paper presented Thursday that represented the farthest Sinn Fein was prepared to go toward promising IRA disarmament.

That paper said Sinn Fein leaders believed they "could succeed in persuading those with arms to decommission them in accordance with the agreement'' if Sinn Fein got its allotted two seats in the envisioned 12-member government.

Calling Friday's negotiations "an absolutely critical phase in the history of this island,'' McGuinness accused the Ulster Unionists of acting like "spoiled children.''

Sinn Fein's offer was lauded by Blair as a "seismic shift'' in the party's previous steadfast refusal to link the IRA's arsenal with the right to hold office, but the Ulster Unionists want a cast-iron assurance the IRA will disarm.

Trimble, who would lead the government, said Sinn Fein's use of the word "could'' revealed how little had actually been promised.

"Because 'could' also means 'could not.' We need to know what the IRA actually will do, and when,'' The Associated Press quoted him as saying.

In an important development, General John de Chastelain, the Canadian head of the international commission that has been seeking disarmament of the IRA and outlawed pro-British groups, presented his report on the situation to Blair and Ahern, and said he hoped it would "move peace forward.''

The report confirmed that the IRA, via de Chastelain's occasional meetings with McGuinness, had yet to give any "unambiguous commitment'' to disarm.

Though McGuinness is the IRA's reputed former chief-of-staff, the group's senior position, de Chastelain said his commission "has not yet had any contact with acknowledged representatives of the IRA.''

Nonetheless, he judged that Sinn Fein's latest proposal "may translate into a commitment to decommission paramilitary arms'' by the IRA. For the intended May deadline for the IRA's total disarmament, he wrote, "the process of decommissioning should begin as soon as possible.''

All sides had been hoping for a breakthrough before July's "marching season,'' when hard-line Protestant parades across Northern Ireland cause sectarian tensions to run at their highest.

The major marching group, the Orange Order, is vowing to defy restrictions on a march Sunday in the Protestant heartland of Portadown, where confrontations have inspired the worst violence in recent years.

Before dawn Friday, British soldiers began erecting obstacles across farm fields to prevent Orangemen this weekend from reaching the Garvaghy Road, Portadown's major Catholic section.