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Attacks Undermine N. Ireland Accord

November 2, 2000

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ The Northern Ireland peace accord took a battering on several fronts Wednesday as Cabinet members clashed and violent attacks raised tensions.

A booby-trap device planted in a traffic cone by suspected Irish Republican Army dissidents exploded when a policeman tried to move it; the blast blew off his leg. The cone was planted at the entrance to the police station in Castlewellan, a mostly Roman Catholic village south of Belfast. Police said a second booby trap nearby failed to detonate.

British troops, meanwhile, were deployed into hard-line Protestant parts of north Belfast to try to suppress renewed violence between the province’s major pro-British gangs, the Ulster Defense Association and Ulster Volunteer Force.

But after dark Wednesday, a Protestant man with ties to the Ulster Volunteer Force was killed and police said members of the Ulster Defense Association were suspected. Police said two gunmen burst into the man’s north Belfast apartment and shot him in the head several times as his girlfriend looked on.

The outlawed groups are supposed to be observing a truce in support of the province’s 1998 peace pact. But they have been targeting each others’ supporters since August in a feud driven by competing criminal rackets and personal animosities.

On Tuesday, an Ulster Defense gunman killed 63-year-old former Ulster Volunteer Force commander Bertie Rice in front of his wife. Hours later, Ulster Volunteer Force gunmen burst into the home of high-ranking Ulster Defense member Tommy English, 41, fatally shooting him three times in the chest. The attackers also pistol-whipped his wife.

The feud has claimed seven lives and forced more than 150 families from their homes.

``This could end with bodies strewn all over north Belfast,″ said David Mahood, a close colleague of English.

The rising paramilitary activity added to pressures facing Northern Ireland’s joint Protestant-Catholic government, a fragile four-party coalition at the heart of the 1998 peace pact.

The administration already has unraveled once this year because of the IRA’s refusal to disarm, another elusive goal of the peace accord.

The senior Cabinet minister, Ulster Unionist Party chief David Trimble, in May persuaded a majority of his Protestant followers to restart the coalition after the IRA promised it would disarm. But on Wednesday, Trimble found himself locked in a worsening dispute with the two Catholic-supported parties in the coalition _ particularly the IRA-linked Sinn Fein _ over his powers to control the administration’s meetings with the Irish government.

Such cross-border cooperation was an important part of the peace pact for Catholics, many of whom believe it will promote Ireland’s eventual unification.

Last weekend, Trimble kept his hard-line Protestant critics at bay by promising he would restrict Sinn Fein ministers’ official contacts with the Irish government until the IRA makes good on its promise to disarm. He canceled a scheduled Friday meeting between the Irish government’s health minister and Sinn Fein member Bairbre de Brun, the health minister in the Northern Ireland administration.

But on Wednesday, the Irish government confirmed that its minister would meet with de Brun anyway.

``I will not allow David Trimble to play party politics with health and social services,″ said de Brun. ``This is not a defiant gesture. This is a professional gesture.″

An Irish government statement sought to avoid the impression that it was backing Sinn Fein over Trimble: It said the meeting would take place ``outside the formal framework″ agreed to by the governments. Nonetheless, the agenda _ including developing common policies on joint medical services along their 200-mile border _ remained unchanged.

Trimble called the planned meeting ``a face-saving device″ that had ``no authority.″

But he also argued with his administration’s moderate Catholic deputy leader, Seamus Mallon. After a tense 45-minute meeting, Mallon announced that he would attend Friday’s meeting in protest at Trimble’s attempt to ``veto central elements of the Good Friday agreement.″

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