By Jack Holland
The North’s minister of education, Martin McGuinness, had an easy time of it when he addressed a recent gathering organized by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy at the Mutual of America building on Park Avenue. After his outline of what has gone wrong with the Good Friday agreement from a Sinn Fein perspective, the few questions he took from the audience were extremely sympathetic. It was clear where they thought the blame lay for the current mess.
In a way, that should not really be surprising, given the fact that the audience contained a strong element of Irish Americans who would lean toward nationalism in any case. But in another way it was surprising. There were people there who might have been a lot more critical of Sinn Fein and the IRA under normal circumstances but in this case were not. The fact that they were not is especially striking if one considers the background to the current crisis.
When George Mitchell wound up his review in mid-November 1999, the press generally applauded David Trimble, the Unionist leader and first minister of the new government, for finally "jumping. It was understood that should republicans fail to meet their part of the bargain — i.e. begin decommissioning in some shape or form — then it would be clear as to where the blame would lie. The exact nature of the bargain arrived at in the closing stages of the review was not made explicit, and there was much speculation and what it was that had finally convinced Trimble to do what Sinn Fein had been pressing him to do for 18 frustrating months — go into government with the party. But it was generally assumed it involved decommissioning, or at least a timetable for it. Trimble, it was said, had written a letter of resignation, to become effective if the IRA did not meet its side of the bargain by Feb. 12, when his party’s ruling body, the Ulster Unionist Council, was due to convene.
When two prominent Sinn Fein spokesmen on a U.S. visit in late November dismissed the suggestion that the IRA would decommission to keep the new government going, they were denounced. The line then quickly came out from the party that it was committed to "the full implementation" of the Good Friday agreement — which most took to mean "including decommissioning."
As January wore on with no sign of decommissioning, as expected, criticism was directed mainly against republicans, who were being blamed for not moving on the issue. As the deadline set by Trimble neared, that criticism grew. The Northern Ireland secretary of state, Peter Mandelson, had warned that he would suspend the government rather than allow Trimble to act on his post-dated letter of resignation, which he had left in the possession of the UUC chairman.
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There was dismay as the reality of that threat increased. The IRA and Sinn Fein were the ones who were being blamed for allowing Trimble to "jump" first (by agreeing to enter the power-sharing government) and then hanging back, refusing to disarm.
On Feb. 11, Mandelson did what he said he would do and suspended the power-sharing government. In the immediate aftermath of the decision, here and in Ireland and Britain, in the media it was the IRA that took the brunt of the blame.
The New York Times ran four editorials on the crisis between Feb. 1-24. The first one was headlined "Dangerous Stall by the I.R.A.", the second, "Costly Stubbornness by the I.R.A." The third, which appeared on Feb. 12, began: "The Irish Republican Army’s delays in spelling out a clear plan for turning in its vast store of hidden weapons led Britain to take the regrettable but necessary step yesterday of suspending Northern Ireland’s 10-week-old power-sharing government." The first three editorials did mention Trimble, and the fact that he had set a deadline for decommissioning. But the line was obviously sympathetic to his position, the Feb. 1 editorial declaring that "Two months have now gone by, the I.R.A. has not turned over any weapons, and the Ulster Unionists, quite rightly, are feeling abused."
On Feb. 24, a fourth editorial appeared, almost two weeks after the suspension. It began, predictably enough, with the assertion that the peace in Northern Ireland would "not be truly secure until the Irish Republican Army and Protestant paramilitary forces give up their weapons." It alleged, again, that "the heaviest responsibility" for the crisis "lies with the I.R.A." However, for the first time the Times took aim also at Trimble. It said: "Mr. Trimble’s threats and deadlines have proven counterproductive. His early February deadline for disarmament to begin, a date that appears nowhere in the Good Friday agreement, set off the latest crisis, and his resignation threat triggered Britain’s decision to suspend local governance.
"Mr. Trimble’s tactics have helped him consolidate his party leadership, but the larger cost has been high. He should recognize that threats undermine the process of reconciliation and confidence-building on which further progress in Northern Ireland depends." It also made the important point that General de Chastelain’s decommissioning body should be allowed to manage the process, and that the involvement of various parties, as well as Dublin and London, in the disarmament issue, "only complicate matters." It strongly advocated that steps should be taken immediately to reestablish the institutions of government.
In other words, the Times had at least on three important aspects of the crisis adopted (more or less) the Sinn Fein analysis.
What had happened between Feb. 12 and Feb. 24? In the wake of the government’s suspension, Mandelson had come to the U.S. to explain his action, and Sinn Fein had dispatched Martin McGuinness to give its party line. Both men spoke with the Times editorial board shortly before the Feb. 24 editorial was issued. The result was most disappointing for the British and extremely gratifying for Sinn Fein.
McGuinness’s reception at the Mutual of America venue the following day must be also set in the context of the Mandelson visit. The Northern Ireland secretary of state had spoken with Bill Flynn, former CEO of Mutual, and his the current CEO, Tom Moran. Both men were so unsettled by what he said that Flynn, in his introductory remarks to McGuinness’s speech, expressed his dismay that the British had confessed not knowing what to do next. By the time McGuinness had risen to speak, it was clear where the blame for the Feb. 11 debacle was shifting.