By Jack Holland
The latest deadlock in Northern Ireland is threatening to turn into a serious political crisis, dangerously delaying the setting up of the new assembly’s full executive, due to take place by February.
"It is a drift toward a political vacuum," said an Irish government source. The last time such a vacuum occurred, he pointed out, was in December last year, when a controversy over the Heads of Agreement document set back the opening of full-party talks. During the delay, there was a vicious outbreak of paramilitary violence in which 12 people lost their lives in the space of a few weeks.
The present delay comes at a time when reliable sources in the security forces are expecting an attack from the Continuity IRA, which refuses to call a cease-fire and has condemned Sinn Fein’s role in the peace process. As well, a recent arms find in a Protestant area of Belfast has led to fears of further sectarian attacks from the so-called Red Hand Defenders, which took responsibility for the murder four weeks ago of a North Belfast Catholic and the attempted murders of others.
It is also thought that the delays over the setting up of the shadow executive, including its cross-border implementation bodies, undermined moves within the IRA to begin the decommissioning process. An extraordinary convention was expected to be held to vote on whether the seven-member leadership body, the Army Council, should be given the power it once possessed to determine questions of disarmament. But without any move to set up the cross-border institutions, this did not go ahead.
Nationalist frustration with David Trimble, the first minister of the Assembly and leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, is growing. Trimble refused to countenance seats on the shadow executive going to Sinn Fein without some prior disarmament taking place, though this requirement is not written into the Good Friday peace agreement.
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"He is behaving like the leader of the UUP, not like the first minister," said an official. There is continued deadlock thanks to unionist objections to the proposed scope and number of the cross-border bodies. Many nationalist fear that Trimble is looking for delays, being afraid to take risks due to opposition from within his own party while at the same time eating into the deadline of the year 2000 when all paramilitary weapons have to be decommissioned.
Meanwhile, the delays have intensified the debate within the republican movement over the course it should take in regard to decommissioning. Reliable sources suggest that there are currently three strands of thought within the IRA. The first, which a majority hold, accepts that disarmament has to begin but will not move on the issue until the institutions envisioned in the Good Friday agreement have been established. It was this group which was pressing for the now delayed army convention.
A second strand does not want any disarmament, token or otherwise, until the cross-border bodies have been set up and the Commission on Policing has published its report on the RUC. Chaired by former Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten, the report is not expected until May next year. This strand of thought wants to make IRA disarmament dependent on changes being made to the RUC as demanded by Sinn Fein.
A third strand within the IRA is opposed to any disarmament and argues that it was Sinn Fein that made the commitment, not the IRA itself. Members of this block are said to be close to the dissident republicans who set up the "Real" IRA late last year.
Sources say that the current stalemate is reminiscent of the situation in late 1995 when continued British delays kept Sinn Fein outside the peace talks though the IRA cease-fire was well into its second year. Eventually, the IRA ended its cease-fire.
However, there is no sense that the present situation is that serious.
"It won’t be allowed to drift," said an Irish government official. But the need remains to impart some momentum to the process.
"If there was real movement on the cross-border bodies," said a source, "then it would put the pressure back on Sinn Fein."
Recently there has been speculation that the Clinton administration might intervene with an economic revitalization package offer in return for political progress.
This week Clinton envoy and the former chairman of the talks George Mitchell held a series of meetings with the heads of the Northern Ireland parties in Belfast.