Rather than permit a meltdown in the Northern Ireland assembly, the Blair government temporarily reinstated direct rule of Northern Ireland from London at midnight Tuesday. The British Northern Ireland secretary ordered the suspension of the devolved Belfast parliament to pre-empt a walkout by First Minister David Trimble. Trimble and other unionist members had threatened to leave the Stormont parliament after the discovery earlier this month of an alleged IRA spy ring, in which republican operatives are said to have systematically copied sensitive government information, including the names and addresses of prison officers. The unionists treated the espionage allegations as the last straw, saying they had lost faith in Sinn Fein's renunciation of violence. Trimble refused to serve in a Cabinet with Sinn Fein unless the IRA completely disbands. In a joint statement, the British and Irish premiers warned republicans that they must choose between violence and democracy. They said, "The time has come for people clearly to choose one track or the other. It is now essential that the concerns around the commitment to exclusively democratic and non-violent means are removed."
In Dublin, the Irish Independent was not entirely pessimistic about the latest turn of events. It said "mothballing" the assembly kept the Good Friday Agreement alive, albeit in a state of suspended animation: "[T]he peace process itself is still going along, battered and imperfect but still saving lives." Politicians were hopeful that "some time next Spring the freeze-dried executive can be dug out of the freezer and, as it were, microwaved back into life." The Belfast Telegraph agreed that while suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly "was never going to be a popular option … pushing the pause button remains infinitely preferable to the alternative of allowing the Stormont institutions to implode." The devolved parliament has been a huge step forward, the paper said, "For the first time in Northern Ireland's history, unionists and republicans have been debating face to face across the floor of an elected assembly." The Scotsman concurred: "The real losers are the tens of thousands of ordinary people in Northern Ireland for whom devolution was making a difference."
There was a general consensus that the onus is now on the republican side. The Belfast Telegraph declared: "Sinn Fein may be tempted to sit back, thinking that its electoral mandate will compel others to deal with it, IRA or no IRA. Whatever votes it amasses, however, it will find no one to deal with, so long as the connection with paramilitarism remains." In Belfast, the unionist News Letter said the suspension "amounts to a vote of no confidence in Sinn Fein's political integrity." Its editorial noted: "Today, the IRA is still armed, and dangerous. It still possesses an illegal military arsenal which makes it the envy of most other terrorist organisations. It has never said its war is over." Acknowledging that loyalist paramilitaries also still operate, the News Letter said the difference is that "they do not help to govern this country." If Sinn Fein and the IRA took measures to build trust, "We would then see just how committed unionists are to a genuinely inclusive and democratic settlement."
On the republican side, An Phoblacht dismissed the maneuverings as "a very British coup." It suggested the spy ring allegations were a front that presented anti-Good Friday Agreement unionists with an excuse to threaten a walkout: "Trimble's display of moral indignation at being required to work with republicans was no more than a fig leaf to cover a sectarian agenda that harked back to the Orange state." The paper's editorial said, "Tony Blair must rein in the securocrats who have sought to return to the certainties of conflict. … But most importantly, he must show the rejectionist unionists that there is no alternative to the Good Friday Agreement."