Protestant leader David Trimble resigns as Northern Ireland‘s First Minister on June 30, 2001, plunging the British province into a political vacuum and threatening a hard-won peace deal with minority Roman Catholics.
Trimble, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize with Catholic leader John Hume for their part in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, precipitates the crisis by submitting a post-dated resignation letter several weeks earlier in protest of the Irish Republican Army‘s (IRA) refusal to disarm as part of the deal.
Trimble, who is attending a commemoration of the World War I Battle of the Somme in France when the resignation comes into effect at midnight, appoints Trade Minister Reg Empey, a member of his Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), to take over his duties.
Under the landmark Good Friday Agreement, the power-sharing government of Catholics and Protestants that Trimble has headed has a six-week period to either re-install Trimble or replace him before the Northern Irish Assembly and Northern Ireland Executive are suspended. If such steps fail, Britain can call new provincial elections or re-impose direct rule from London.
As Trimble leaves the province, police and British troops mount a strong presence to head off trouble during a parade by the Protestant Orange Order institution. There are only minor scuffles between police and residents as a concrete and steel barrier is put up by security forces to seal off the Catholic enclave ahead of the march.
A spokesman for Trimble’s UUP says Empey’s appointment is intended to “shore up the political institutions and ensure its representation in the government.” Empey says his role is to perform the functions of First Minister but not take the title or salary. He says his party will not share power with the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) political arm Sinn Féin unless the guerrilla group starts to disarm.
Sinn Fein leaders denounce Trimble’s resignation as an evasion of responsibility for peace in the province. The IRA says it wants a permanent peace and security sources say there is no sign of a return-to-war mood in the ranks of the guerrilla group. It has twice opened up arms dumps for international inspection to prove that the weapons have not been used, but Protestant politicians say that is not enough.