“I believe we will see Ian Paisley as first minister and Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister in the coming year,” the Massachusetts Democrat said from his office in Springfield. Such a power-sharing arrangement between the hard-line Protestant minister and the former IRA leader from Derry would be historic.
Neal said he gained confidence that the process will move forward after a briefing by the Bush administration’s special envoy, Mitchell Reiss.
The two spoke last week after Reiss returned from Belfast, where the envoy was the original proponent of a plan that would have the IRA provide photographic evidence of its weapons decommissioning.
“I think the photographing will work,” Neal said. “I think the IRA will allow it to happen, and that the photos will be held back and the DUP will resume power sharing in the New Year.”
Neal said neither the recent developments in the Colombia Three case in Bogota nor the speculation over possible IRA involvement in a recent multi-million-pound Belfast bank robbery will have much of an effect on the U.S. government’s position on the peace process.
“The IRA has maintained it cease fire since 1994; the IRA has acknowledged the war is over; Sinn Fein has joined in the policing process,” Neal said, noting that these are the elements that will maintain peace in the North and compel his optimism.
In early December, Reiss had joined the Irish and British governments at Hillsborough Castle in County Down in an effort to formulate a blueprint for restoration of power for the North’s devolved government. DUP leader Ian Paisley’s signature inflammatory rhetoric calling for the IRA to be humiliated combined with hesitation by Sinn Fein to allow the photographing of decommissioning led to a failure to restore the Northern Executive earlier this month.
Neal insisted that there was actually some confusion at the end of the talks, and that there remains a great deal of hope that a deal is within reach.
“Mitchell Reiss’s position is that Sinn Fein never said no to the photographs, but that they never said yes, and that if we’re down to a photograph, then its just a matter of how it will be finessed,” Neal said.
He also said both the DUP and Sinn Fein have to prepare their constituencies for the eventuality that the two parties will go into government together.
“I’ve been watching and working on this for 30 years,” Neal said of the situation in Northern Ireland. “We’ve had George Bush personally picking up the phone, the Irish and British governments working till they’re exhausted, but the people have picked Sinn Fein and the DUP to finalize the Good Friday agreement, and that will happen.”