In Northern Ireland, a Setback for Peace Efforts ; Britain Suspended the Province's Catholic/Protestant Assembly Monday

Article excerpt

Hopes for long-term reconciliation between Roman Catholics and Protestants were dealt a blow Monday, as Northern Ireland's power- sharing government was put on ice and Britain resumed ruling this troubled province.

This latest, and most serious, political crisis underlines the difficulty of finding a path to lasting peace.

Although no one expects a return to the height of the bloody 30- year period here known as The Troubles, police here are warning that the threat from dissident guerrilla groups - both Loyalist (who want to retain the link with Britain) and Republican (who want a single, united Ireland) - is higher now than at any stage since 1994 ceasefires.

Even a temporary return of British rule is distressing to most Catholics, while Protestants appear divided.

"Having locally elected ministers is far more dignified and democratic than having people ruling us from England who know little and probably care even less about us," says Eileen Howell, director of the Falls Community Council in mainly Catholic west Belfast. "We feel frustrated, angry - and very, very hurt because we put an awful lot of effort into making this work."

But Stuart McCartney, a Protestant community worker in a working- class area of north Belfast, says opinion there is split.

Some are disappointed because "they feel we had made great strides forwards, because we want local government, run by local people."

But others, he said, hail Britain's return and point fingers at Sinn Fein, the Catholic political party at the center of the scandal that triggered the crisis. "Both sides have to play honestly ... even children playing games understand that, and a commonality is that people don't think Sinn Fein were playing by the rules."

The spying scandal broke after an Oct. 4 police raid on the homes of four supporters of Sinn Fein, widely regarded as the political wing of the IRA, a clandestine Catholic paramilitary force. Police say they found documents including potential IRA targets ranging from prison officers to the British army commander here - and confidential communications between Britain and other parties in the Northern Ireland peace process. The four have since been charged.

The scandal prompted a threat by the pro-British Ulster Unionist Party to walk out in protest of Sinn Fein's continued participation in government. To keep the power-sharing effort from unraveling, London stepped in Monday - for the fourth time since February 2000.

Power sharing between Catholics and Protestants was the centerpiece of the Good Friday peace agreement, signed here in 1998.

For many Protestants, the current scandal, which some here call the "Irish Watergate," is proof that Sinn Fein was never serious about the peace process.

Many Catholics say that they suspect that the raid was a set-up, and that the Protestant side was never genuinely committed to sharing power.

Brian Feeney, college lecturer and author of "Sinn Fein - A Hundred Turbulent Years" says it's as though the Protestant and Catholic communities are living in "two parallel universes. …