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British, Irish Leaders Meet to Discuss Northern Ireland Crisis - 2002-10-09

British Prime Minister Tony Blair meets his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, for talks Wednesday night on the political crisis in Northern Ireland. Mr. Blair is considering suspension of self-rule in Northern Ireland following allegations of spying by the Irish Republican Army.

Pressure is mounting on Mr. Blair after he got an ultimatum from Northern Irish leader David Trimble to expel the Sinn Fein party from the power-sharing executive council that rules Northern Ireland.

Mr. Trimble is making his demand because Sinn Fein is accused of passing government secrets to the Irish Republican Army, sparking one of the gravest crises in Northern Ireland since the signing of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord.

Mr. Trimble is the senior minister on the 12-member administration, and he leads the Ulster Unionists, biggest party in Northern Ireland opposed to Sinn Fein and the IRA. Sinn Fein is the IRA's political wing and it holds two seats on executive council.

Four parties sit on the executive council. Two of them represent the predominantly Protestant unionist movement that wants Northern Ireland to remain a British province. The other two parties get most of their support from Catholics and favor Northern Ireland's eventual merger with the Irish republic.

Mr. Trimble says he will resign next week if Mr. Blair does not present a motion in the Northern Ireland assembly to expel Sinn Fein from the government.

Mr. Trimble told British radio the alleged spy activity shows that Sinn Fein and the IRA are not committed to peace.

"I would like the government to tackle the cause of the instability," said Mr. Trimble. "And that means bringing it home to the republican leadership that four and a half years after the agreement made, it's about time they implemented it."

Martin McGuinness is a senior Sinn Fein official who serves as education minister on the executive council. He denies the spy allegations and says the police have returned computer disks taken in a raid on Sinn Fein offices on Friday. Mr. McGuinness says the affair should not set back the peace process.

"All those people who voted for the Good Friday agreement will be dismayed that David Trimble would allow two disks taken last Friday in this building, returned to us today, to effectively destroy all of the work of the last 10 years," said Mr. McGuinness.

Prime Minister Blair is now considering whether to suspend the Northern Ireland government and impose direct rule from London, an option he has exercised twice before.

The moderate Northern Irish leader Mark Durkan, who met Mr. Blair Wednesday, indicated he would favor suspension over the expulsion of Sinn Fein.

Another option for Mr. Blair would be to move up the elections now scheduled for next May. But Blair advisers say that would probably shift power from moderate politicians to hardliners, and only make the tensions worse.