Unionists back deal and warn Adams: we've jumped, you follow

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The Independent Online

Northern Ireland's new power-sharing executive to be set up next week will collapse if the IRA fail to disarm by February, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble warned tonight.

Northern Ireland's new power-sharing executive to be set up next week will collapse if the IRA fail to disarm by February, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble warned tonight.

After getting his party's critical backing to enter into government with Sinn Fein in advance of any weapons and explosives being handed over, he delivered an ultimatum to Gerry Adams and the republican leadership.

Mr Trimble declared: "We have done our bit. Mr Adams, it is over to you. We have jumped, you follow."

The 58% support of his Ulster Unionist Council was not as decisive or the ringing endorsement many senior officials had hoped at the end of a tense four-hour debate in Belfast.

But it was a good enough to clear the way for the formation of an executive with nationalists and republicans at Stormont on Monday.

The council is to have another meeting next February to make a fresh assessment of the disarmament process under the direct control of General John de Chastelain.

A second and final vote will be taken, and in the meantime the Provisionals have been given two months to empty their hidden arms dumps. Otherwise Mr Trimble has warned he will resign as First Minister.

Three colleagues with seats on the executive in charge of the Northern Ireland Assembly will go as well.

Mr Trimble insisted: "This clears the stalemate."

Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Republic's Taoiseach Bertie Ahern were clearly relieved tonight, but the unionist strategy to delay a final decision did not go down well with the republican leadership.

They claimed it was outside the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and was not part of the review of its implementation carried out with Mr Trimble and the US Senator George Mitchell

Just before the result was announced at Belfast's Waterfront Hall, Mr Adams, the Sinn Fein president, left his sickbed where he is recovering from flu to warn that difficulties remained.

He said: "In my view this is the wrong way to go. It will fuel uncertainty and keep alive the hopes of rejectionists, inside and outside the Ulster Unionist Party."

He added: "It is a matter of political judgment how Mr Trimble deals with his own party.

"It runs against the Good Friday Agreement and all the advice given to Mr Trimble by other participants in the Mitchell review."

But Mr Blair and Mr Ahern said it was time to move into a new era. The Prime Minister said: "I remain of the view we have the best prospect in a generation for building that lasting peace."

The Irish Premier said the vote was a milestone of enormous significance. There were many hurdles and difficulties ahead, but there could be no turning back.

Mr Ahern added: "What is now in our hands is truly a golden chance, a chance that many thought we would never have."

The Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson said the vote was an "excellent result" and he expected decommissioning to take place.

It wasn't an easy decision but the Unionist Party had risen to the occasion, he claimed.

He said: "Now we can begin to put the last 30 years behind us as we chart the way forward."

A decision by Mr Trimble's deputy John Taylor to back him was crucial, but it was the announcement to recall the council next February and Mr Trimble's threat to resign if the IRA fails to deliver which clearly had the most significant impact on nervous and anxious delegates agonising right up until the ballot was taken.

The result was not as decisive as the some of the leadership had hoped - they were aiming for somewhere in the region of the early to mid-60% - and while it represented a huge leap of faith, it left Northern Ireland's largest party seriously and bitterly divided.

William Thompson, one of six Ulster Unionist MPs opposed to the deal, has threatened to resign his party membership next Tuesday - after the executive is formed and in advance of legislative powers being transferred from London to Belfast on Thursday.

Even though Mr Trimble has set a February deadline for the IRA to disarm, security chiefs in Belfast tonight said they did not expect any immediate movement.

But it was not ruled it out completely at some stage in the future.

One authoritative source told PA News: "It will not happen next week, but I can see it happening in due course. Maybe not next week, or the week after that.

"They (republicans) are preparing for change. There is evidence of that happening. There is evidence they are unfreezing their people to the concept of some decommissioning, contrary to the notion previously held that not one ounce, not one bullet would be handed over."