MINNEAPOLIS -- Despite a breakdown in the peace process, the head of Northern Ireland's main pro-British party said today he remains optimistic about settling the conflict that has long divided Protestants and Catholics in his province.
David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party said the process is only on hold for now, and that he is confident the Irish Republican Army eventually will agree to disarm.
Because of the IRA's refusal to begin handing over its weapons, the British government last week stripped authority from the four-party coalition government in Belfast, which had taken shape just two months earlier under the 1998 Good Friday peace accord that Trimble helped negotiate. Trimble had been a first minister in that government.
''I regard the situation at the moment as being a hiatus -- a temporary hiatus,'' Trimble said at a breakfast forum sponsored by the Minnesota International Center. ''I think this issue will eventually be resolved. ... I don't think there's any serious danger of them reverting to violence.''
Trimble said the only way forward for armed paramilitary groups such as the IRA is to keep their commitment to peaceful means for resolving the conflict.
''We are having these delays because of their reluctance to move as quickly as we would like, but yet I don't think there's any other way in which development will occur. I don't know how quickly we'll resolve the present hiatus -- that depends on others -- but I'm sure that we will.'' Trimble said.
Trimble shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize with John Hume, leader of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party, who was also a first minister in the suspended government. Trimble was in Minnesota along with Hume's deputy, Denis Haughey, for this weekend's annual Nobel Peace Prize Forum at St. Olaf College in Northfield.
Haughey largely echoed Trimble's optimism that the disagreement over decommissioning the weapons of the paramilitaries can be overcome.
''But I would say this: the longer the suspension goes on, I think, the more difficult things get,'' Haughey said. He said all sorts of new demands could be raised if the stalemate isn't broken quickly.
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