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N. Ireland Coalition Government Loses 2 Ministers

Northern Ireland's power-sharing government began to crumble Friday, with the resignation of two ministers from a hardline pro-British party. As the political crisis deepens, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is preparing to suspend self rule in the long troubled province next week.

The two Northern Irish ministers who resigned Friday are from the Democratic Unionist Party of Ian Paisley, the most stridently pro-British politician in the province.

Mr. Paisley's deputy, Peter Robinson, stepped down as regional development minister. His colleague, Nigel Dodds, resigned as minister of social development.

They have quit in protest against the Sinn Fein Party, which is accused of running a spy operation for the Irish Republican Army.

Prime Minister Blair is preparing to deal with the crisis by suspending self-government in Northern Ireland, a move that is being sharply criticized by Mr. Robinson.

"That would be the trait of a fascist, and we do not want to live in a totalitarian regime," he said. "We want to live in a democracy. And at the heart of a democracy, is an electoral process."

The spy scandal has set off one of Northern Ireland's most serious political crises since a peace agreement was signed in 1998 to end decades of violence between republicans, who want to end British rule over Northern Ireland, and unionists who want the province to remain part of Britain.

British sources say Prime Minister Blair plans to suspend self-government in Northern Ireland early next week. Mr. Blair's Northern Ireland secretary, John Reid, is expected to make a speech in parliament Tuesday on the issue.

Mr. Blair is acting in the face of an ultimatum from the head of Northern Ireland's government, David Trimble. He is threatening to resign by Tuesday, if Sinn Fein is not expelled from the government because of its alleged continued involvement with the IRA.

British media report the suspension of self-rule could last for months, and could disrupt plans for elections in Northern Ireland due by next May.