Belfast government to lose, regain control

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Britain used a legal loophole Friday to temporarily rescue Northern Ireland's crumbling government and give politicians six more weeks to resolve their arguments over Irish Republican Army disarmament.

Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid signed an order to suspend the government's powers at midnight and return authority to local hands Sunday. It is the second time the loophole has been invoked to stave off the government's collapse.

The move's effect was to cancel a Saturday deadline for the four-party coalition to elect a new Protestant leader.

But Protestant lawmakers say they won't vote for a new leader by the new Nov. 3 deadline, either, unless the IRA disarms as the 1998 Good Friday peace accord intended.

Reid said the outlawed group's commanders had a new opportunity to save the coalition, which includes the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party.

"I do not know whether they will take it. My fervent hope is that they can and will," Reid said in a statement.

Shortly before Reid's announcement, unidentified security officials in Northern Ireland told Press Association, Britain's news agency, that they expected the IRA to offer to get rid of two weapons caches. Both caches in the Republic of Ireland have been shown in secret to foreign diplomats.

Such reports have surfaced in Northern Ireland since June. But Northern Ireland's police commander, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, said Friday his intelligence officers had "nothing to suggest that an act of IRA decommissioning is imminent."

Won't happen again

Reid, who previously issued a one-day suspension Aug. 11, said he wouldn't do it a third time. He said the government's survival now depended on whether the IRA fulfilled its 16-month-old pledge to begin giving up its hidden weapons.

If there is no breakthrough by Nov. 3, Reid said he would have to choose between two difficult options.

He could return Northern Ireland to direct British control indefinitely. Or he could let the local legislature and administration collapse, then order new elections that would probably produce gains for the most hard-line parties on each side.

Reid's widely anticipated announcement followed consultations with the Irish government, which called the decision disappointing but necessary.

"Although nobody who supports the Good Friday agreement can welcome this suspension, I hope that all parties will make the fullest use of the time now available," said Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen.