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The day Ulster lost heart

A DAY of high drama and low farce in Belfast yesterday saw the Irish peace process plunged into damaging disarray, leaving the British and Irish governments to salvage what they can from a severe setback.

An extraordinary and politically damaging few hours began with the refusal of the First Minister Designate, David Trimble, to nominate Ulster Unionists to a new cross-community executive, despite weeks of persuasion and pressure from Tony Blair.

Mr Trimble and his party failed to turn up at the Northern Ireland assembly, provoking the televised charade of the Speaker asking Mr Trimble's empty chair whether he wished to put forward ministerial candidates. The Unionist boycott was in turn followed by the farcical spectacle of a 10-member all-nationalist executive being nominated by the SDLP and Sinn Fein. This was instantly dissolved since it did not meet the requirements on cross- community representation.

Then there was more drama when Seamus Mallon of the SDLP, who had been designated as Mr Trimble's deputy in a new administration, rose from his seat to resign from that post. In doing so he made a strong attack on the Ulster Unionists, accusing them of dishonouring the Good Friday Agreement and "insulting its principles".

The two governments and all other supporters of the agreement thus witnessed, not the dawning of a new era of co-operative government, but a series of injurious blows to the credibility of the peace process.

London and Dublin quickly announced that the agreement would be put on hold while they conducted a review of its implementation. In practical terms this appears to mean taking time to work out where to go next and how to protect the rest of the accord's provisions.

In the meantime, a torrent of criticism and condemnation was directed at David Trimble, both for his action in spurning Tony Blair's efforts to provide reassurance on IRA arms de-commissioning and for the tactics he employed yesterday.

Announcing in the morning that he would not go to the assembly, Mr Trimble said: "The process should not be crashed. It should be parked, which will lead to a review."

He made the announcement surrounded by his assembly members outside his party headquarters in central Belfast, apparently assuming that the Government would cancel the assembly sitting.

He appeared surprised and taken aback by the government decision to go ahead with the session, during which his Unionist and nationalist opponents were able to speak at some length. The image of his empty chair, displayed on television broadcasts at home and abroad, was seen as damaging both to his own party and to the political process in general.

London and Dublin made it clear yesterday that the Good Friday Agreement was by no means dead, and that it would continue to form the basis of their joint approach. The review they announced is concerned with the implementation of the agreement, not with its existence, since it is seen as containing valuable provisions which should be preserved, for example on the question of Northern Ireland's constitutional position.

Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, are to meet next week to chart the way ahead, but yesterday the likeliest outcome appeared to be yet another attempt to tackle the vexed decommissioning issue in the autumn.

Both governments are plainly highly annoyed at the performance of Mr Trimble, who on Wednesday made no attempt to sell the Prime Minister's concessions on decommissioning to his party. But the official word was that the laying of blame and recriminations would simply make a difficult task even harder when next an attempt is made to find agreement on disarmament.

In the meantime the authorities are left to hope that the vacuum caused by yesterday's events will not mean that further damage is inflicted on the process by political events, by marching season controversies or by violence from fringe republican or loyalist groups.

Tony Blair commented: "If these people do not learn to build trust and to recognise the pain and injustice on the other side as well as their own then normal politics in Northern Ireland will never take root and there will never be peace. I hope that I am right in thinking a summer break for dialogue and time to consider the deal will help."

The Bill on decommissioning which was being rushed through Parliament is to go ahead, though with the urgency gone it will now become part of the normal parliamentary timetable.

Earlier Mr Trimble had said that Mr Blair had not produced "even a vestige of proof that terrorists would disarm", saying this justified his party's decision not to take part in a new executive. He added: "`Logically, we dare not risk sacrificing the very fundamentals of democracy by implementing the flawed and unsubstantiated Way Forward document.

"We will continue to work constructively with the other parties to ensure that we achieve the creation of a genuinely democratic government in Northern Ireland," he said.

10.15am, David Trimble: `What should happen today is that the process should not be crashed - it should be parked.'

11.50am, Seamus Mallon:

`I resign reluctantly and in recognition of the awesome responsibility we all have'

12.30pm, Mo Mowlam:

`The last thing the people of Northern Ireland need now is an outbreak of recriminations.'

12.50pm, Tony Blair:

`Work together to earn trust, because without that trust there will never be peace.'