By Jack Holland
Like nearly everything else to do with the Northern Ireland peace process, the George Mitchell review has not gone quite as expected.
The former senator was asked to chair a review of the process when the British and Irish governments’ "Way Forward" proposals were rejected at the beginning of July. These were an attempt to end the "no guns, no government" dispute brought about by the Unionist Party’s refusal to share power with Sinn Fein representatives until the IRA began to decommission.
The rejection had come in spite of the British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s claim that the IRA had made a "seismic shift" toward Unionist demands.
On July 22, both governments asked Mitchell to undertake a review of the problem. It was expected to be "short, sharp and focused," concentrating on the "no guns, no government" snarl.
It was Mitchell’s fourth time around as far as Northern Ireland was concerned. President Clinton had made him a special economic envoy to Northern Ireland in 1994. In late 1995, he had been sent in to help sort out the decommissioning dispute, which was then preventing Sinn Fein from joining the talks process.
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Most famously, he was made chairman of the all-party talks which began in September 1997 and was credited with helping to bring them to a successful conclusion in April the following year. The success, however, was qualified. Though agreement was reached, after 15 months the parties to the agreement had failed to implement it, mainly because of the continuing dispute between Sinn Fein and the UUP over arms decommissioning.
Mitchell met with leaders of 11 political parties in late July, including those opposed to the agreement. The review itself properly began in the first week of September, but was suspended because of the publication of the Patten report on police reform on Sept. 9. The review recommenced on Sept. 13.
Things did not go well. Within days of the review beginning, Deputy UUP leader John Taylor announced he was withdrawing from it. Divisions within Unionism were weakening UUP leader David Trimble’s position.
After one week, the UUP’s leading negotiator, Dermot Nesbitt, said that the review could not go on much longer unless there was movement from the IRA on the arms issue.
As September drew to a close, with little sign of progress being made, there was speculation that unless a deal seemed likely, Mitchell would wind up his review by mid-October.
Gloom deepened when, on Oct. 5, Mitchell warned that the process was "under great stress" and that there was no guarantee of it succeeding. Because of the crisis, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, drastically scaled back a schedule speaking tour of the U.S., confining it to just two days in late October.
During the weekend of Oct. 9, it was announced that Northern Ireland Secretary of State Mo Mowlam was being replaced by Peter Mandelson. There was much speculation as to what this meant for the process, most agreeing that the appointment of Mandelson, a close confidant of Tony Blair, would strengthen it.
On Oct. 18, Mitchell moved the review to London and imposed a media black out.
At this stage, Trimble was a said by some observers to be "sending all the right messages" that he wanted a deal. "Atmospherics" between the UUP and Sinn Fein were said to be very good. "It remains my firm belief," Mitchell said in a rare statement before the move to London, "that the review can succeed." However, on Oct. 21, Adams told an audience in New York that there was only a "very tiny possibility" of the review succeeding.
It was then generally thought that the review would not last longer than another week.
At the end of October there was speculation that a deal would take the form of a "shadow executive" — with ministers designated to seats but not taking them until decommissioning began.
Once more, however, the review went on without any sign of a deal being done.
On Nov. 1, the ninth week of the review, Trimble announced that he was leaving for the U.S. on a short speaking tour and would not return until the following Saturday. This was greeted with dismay in some quarters but in others interpreted as a positive sign that he was confident a deal would be made.
On Nov. 2, Mitchell issued a statement saying that he was preparing a report, to be made ready for the following week, when the parties would reconvene in Belfast. In the meantime, he would meet with the Irish and British prime ministers and President Clinton to brief them on the review’s progress.
Sources believe that this would be his last effort to reach an accord before winding up the review, which had already gone on for six weeks longer than expected.
Week 10 of the review began on Monday, Nov. 8, with Mitchell drafting a report on his findings amid increasing optimism that the UUP and Sinn Fein were closing the gap between their differing positions on decommissioning. However, the clampdown on information about what was going on made it difficult to be precise as to the nature of any purported accord.
By Tuesday afternoon, Mitchell’s report had still not appeared and intensive talks were continuing. A report that the IRA was preparing to make a gesture of "tactical" decommissioning was fiercely repudiated by Sinn Fein, but inside observers did not therefore dismiss that possibility. Trimble’s position was said to be strengthening within his own party.
The increasing likelihood was that the former senator would put his own proposals on the table before the week’s end, secure in the knowledge that neither Sinn Fein nor the UUP would want to be seen as the party which walked away from a Mitchell deal.