BELFAST -- A day billed as a breakthrough for Northern Ireland peacemaking descended into diplomatic shambles yesterday as Protestant leaders rejected the Irish Republican Army's biggest-ever disarmament move as too secretive.
The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, came to Northern Ireland to launch a Nov. 26 election for the province's empty legislature, the intended bedrock of a joint Catholic-Protestant administration for this British territory.
Their mission was supposed to have been bolstered by the IRA's first act of disarmament in 18 months. But it ended late at night with their acknowledgment that an agreement between the two key parties -- the IRA-linked Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists, a major British Protestant party -- had slipped away.
"Yes, the election's going ahead, but we want it in a positive atmosphere," Blair said at the end of what he called a deeply frustrating day.
John de Chastelain, the retired Canadian general trying to coax the IRA and other outlawed groups to disarm, confirmed that the IRA had allowed him to inventory and "decommission" a cache of automatic rifles, explosives, and other weapons yesterday. He said the amount of weaponry was "considerably larger" than on the previous disarmament in April 2002.
Blair and Ahern soon found themselves leading an emergency negotiating session after Ulster Unionist chief David Trimble, whose British Protestant party is essential for any revival of power-sharing, lambasted the IRA for insisting on keeping its latest act of disarmament vague.
"We had made it very clear to the [British and Irish] governments and General de Chastelain that what we needed was a transparent report of major acts of decommissioning," said Trimble, who emphasized that Protestant voters needed to know the details. "Unfortunately, we have not had that."
De Chastelain said the IRA wouldn't allow him to specify the volume or type of weapons discarded, nor the method of disposal -- the same policy enforced during the IRA's two previous weapons-shedding moves, in October 2001 and April 2002.
As a result, Trimble backed away from his intention to declare that the Ulster Unionists wanted to resume power-sharing with Sinn Fein. Such a declaration was to have been the last step in a string of choreographed statements and events yesterday.
Trimble said his about-face "will give republicans, who foolishly imposed obligations of confidentiality on [de Chastelain], the opportunity to repair the damage that has been done to the process this afternoon."
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams called Trimble's decision "deeply disappointing," but defended the IRA's determination to keep its hand-over of weaponry secret, which is seen as a face-saving measure. Two brief statements issued yesterday by the IRA confirmed the latest act of disarmament.