Trimble and Mallon resign

The Northern Ireland peace process last night entered uncharted constitutional waters with the resignation of the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble as First Minister of the Belfast assembly.

His resignation, which automatically triggered that of his nationalist deputy Seamus Mallon, left the Good Friday Agreement institutions in a state of limbo. In the absence of a breakthrough they must be closed down in six weeks.

Intense negotiations will begin next week with the object of pressing the IRA to make a significant arms decommissioning move, which appears to be the only realistic way of avoiding closure of the assembly.

By law the Government must call fresh elections to the assembly or suspend it by 12 August. The hope is that movement on arms can be achieved by the end of July, as part of a package which would entail demilitarisation moves and changes to policing plans.

While pessimists prophesy that the Trimble resignation could spell the beginning of the end for the agreement, optimists hope that republicans will act to rescue the accord.

Any move by the IRA would have to be on a major scale, since the reinstatement of Mr Trimble could only happen if the deep Unionism scepticism about republicanism were dramatically reversed.

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