Northern Ireland's first minister David Trimble resigned early Sunday morning as head of the joint Catholic-Protestant government in Northern Ireland as Catholics and Protestants clashed in Belfast.
Trade and Enterprise Minister Reg Empey, the senior Ulster Unionist remaining in the government, confirmed he would temporarily take on Trimble's ministerial duties.
The Protestant leader's departure gives the parties just six weeks to strike a new deal before the entire power-sharing administration is dissolved. Negotiations are set to resume this week.
One goal in the upcoming negotiations is the beginning of the Irish Republican Army disarmament outlined in the 1998 pact that created the coalition. Trimble has said that if the IRA begins disposing of weapons, he would offer to be re-elected.
"I would expect to be standing as first minister again. This is not my swan song. Any obituary is premature," said Trimble, who shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to guide Protestants toward compromise.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair says he regrets David Trimble's resignation, although he says he understands Trimble's frustration. Blair also said he will lead new negotiations in Northern Ireland this month that he hopes will result in Trimble's re-election
But Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party, emphasized Saturday that the IRA would not respond favorably to what he called Trimble's "kamikaze politics."
Empey also stressed the importance of IRA disarmament, however, saying the Ulster Unionists had already twice formed governments alongside Sinn Fein in hopes that IRA disarmament would follow, and wouldn't be prepared to try a third time.
The political crisis comes at a moment when sectarian passions traditionally run at their highest in Northern Ireland, the start of the Protestant "marching season." For the next two weeks, Protestants from the Orange Order brotherhood are staging hundreds of marches across Northern Ireland, including a few dozen that pass through or near hostile Catholic areas.
On Saturday, riot police backed by British soldiers prevented Catholic protesters from getting near an Orange parade along part of the so-called "peace line" of brick and steel walls that separate Catholic and Protestant parts of west Belfast.
Catholic protesters trying to block the Orangemen's route were themselves blocked by about 100 officers in helmets, shields and flame-retardant suits. The Orangemen offered only sullen stares in the direction of the Catholic protesters, most of whom were out of eyesight several hundred yards away but tried to get the Orangemen's attention by blowing whistles and playing IRA tunes on a loudspeaker.
But as the parade headed up the road away from the protesters, other Protestants hiding behind part of the "peace line" walls beside the Catholics blindly threw over rocks and bottles.
The Catholics responded with their own missiles. A Protestant woman suffered a cut to her face when struck by a bottle on her front porch.