It has been another dark day in the Northern Ireland peace process.

Five Protestant members of Northern Ireland's ruling executive body are resigning, in response to the failure of the Irish Republican Army to disarm. The announcement has thrown the entire peace process into turmoil.

Three ministers of the Ulster Unionist Party tendered their resignations. And the party's leader, David Trimble, who resigned as the government's leader in July, said the decision has been a long time in the making.

"For 18 months, we have carried the burden. And for those 18 months, the Republican movement has done nothing, nothing at all to reciprocate the sacrifices and risks and the effort we have made. We have delayed this for as long as we could, but I am quite satisfied that there would not be sufficient confidence to continue without this action," Mr. Trimble said.

The crisis prompted another Protestant political group, the Democratic Unionists, to withdraw its two government ministers, as well.

That leaves only five Catholic members on the executive council, which is unworkable.

The resignations came one day after Republican sources hinted that a deal on IRA disarmament was possible, if the Ulster Unionists showed a commitment to the power-sharing assembly.

Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, John Reid, now has a week to decide what course to take. With the entire peace process now in serious danger of unraveling, Mr. Reid will hold crisis talks with Irish government officials on Friday.

His two options are either to keep the ruling executive body suspended indefinitely, while London once again assumes direct rule over the province, or to call new elections.

Mr. Reid hopes to avoid that scenario, as political positions are hardening, and any new members could be more polarized than those who tried, but failed, to find a solution acceptable to all.