BELFAST, Northern Ireland - The leader of Northern Ireland's biggest Protestant party narrowly won a crucial party battle Saturday, keeping alive the province's power-sharing government - but only by promising to punish his coalition partners.
Angry that the Irish Republican Army has not begun disarming, hard-liners in the Ulster Unionist party had put forward a motion calling for the party to withdraw from the government, collapsing it, if the IRA doesn't make a disarmament move by Nov. 30.
Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble defeated the motion Saturday. But to fend off the challenge and defend his own leadership, Trimble had to propose his own get-tough plan designed to force the IRA to take action. It passed the party's grass-roots council on a 445-374 vote.
Trimble's plan would impose immediate sanctions on the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party, junior members in the four-party power-sharing government. Under the plan, Sinn Fein's two ministers in the 12-member Cabinet would not be allowed to represent the government any longer in policy-making summits with the Irish government until the IRA begins ''substantial engagement'' with an independent disarmament commission.
The commission's leader, retired Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, has been waiting in vain since 1997 to collect and destroy IRA weapons stockpiles. The IRA has allowed two foreign diplomats to visit three of its arms dumps in secret, most recently Thursday, but has contacted de Chastelain only once since February - briefly by phone.
''Contrary to what they say, the republicans have only moved when they're under pressure,'' Trimble said. ''So the pressure is starting gently, in the hope of doing the least possible damage to the institutions. But don't mistake where it is heading.''
Regular meetings between the Belfast and Dublin governments are a prized part of the province's peace accord for Catholics, who regard such cross-border cooperation as likely to promote Ireland's eventual unification.
''The meetings can go ahead - but not with Sinn Fein,'' said Trimble, who leads the 12-member, four-party Cabinet at the heart of the peace accord. In that role he must sign documents authorizing which ministers attend meetings.
Both Sinn Fein and the major Catholic-supported party in the coalition, the moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party, criticized Trimble's move.
Sinn Fein leaders said they might try to take Trimble to court. They were adamant that the IRA, now three years into a cease-fire, was unlikely to respond favorably to the pressure.
''It's not for David Trimble or any other unionist leader to set limits on our rights,'' said Gerry Kelly, a former IRA car bomber who is now one of the most influential Sinn Fein figures.
Peter Mandelson - Britain's minister for Northern Ireland, who retains considerable power in the province - appealed to Catholics to understand Trimble's difficulties in trying to keep his party together. He urged the IRA to open detailed dialogue with the Canadian disarmament chief.
''Don't overreact,'' Mandelson said. ''If you portray this as a recipe for collapse, it could well be a self-fulfilling prophecy.''
Trimble initially persuaded his party in November 1999 to form the power-sharing government - the intended cornerstone of the province's 1998 peace accord - after receiving assurances from Sinn Fein that gradual IRA disarmament would be likely to follow.
But IRA disarmament didn't start. The following February, Britain stepped in to save Trimble's party leadership by suspending the administration's powers and reimposing direct rule from London, the quasi-colonial system in force here since 1972.
In May, Trimble persuaded a bare majority of his party to back a return to power-sharing alongside Sinn Fein - but only after the IRA announced an unprecedented pledge to work with the disarmament commission to put its weapons ''beyond use.''