By Jack Holland
Publicly, both the Irish and British governments are putting on a brave face before the mounting problems now confronting Northern Ireland’s stuck political process, which former Sen. George Mitchell is currently laboring mightily to unstick. But privately, both governments have resigned themselves to the prospect of pulling down the shutters on any hope of getting the political structures of the Good Friday agreement to function. If this pessimism is borne out, it will mean, in effect, that the attempt to set up a power-sharing, devolved government in Northern Ireland will have failed for the second time in a quarter of a century.
In 1974, the failure was a direct result of Unionist opposition — but it was a unionism that was strong, united and confident. In 1999, however, the threat to the hope for a settlement is being generated chiefly by a Unionist Party which seems in terminal disarray.
UUP leader David Trimble looks increasingly weaker as opposition to him mounts from within his own ranks. Last week, UUP deputy leader John Taylor announced that he was no longer taking part in the Mitchell review of the process. With Taylor’s defection, seven of the 10 Unionist MPs at Westminister are now opposed to the agreement. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Donaldson, who stormed out of the negotiations just before the signing of the Good Friday agreement in April 1998, sees his position strengthened as Unionist support for the agreement crumbles. Recent polls show that it is now under 50 percent. This week, Trimble turned back an attempt at a meeting of UUP executive to force him to follow Taylor’s example and pull out of the Mitchell review. But if such pressures persist they are certain to make the UUP leader’s overall commitment to the process more and more precarious.
However, the UUP’s decision to stay in the review was offset by its decision to condemn the Patten Commission Report on policing. The UUP’s reaction was announced on Monday by the party executive. A statement said that the commission’s recommendations, which include, among other things, the renaming of the RUC, a greater emphasis on human rights in any new police service and an abolition of symbol’s associated with Britain, "must not be accepted as the way forward for policing in Northern Ireland." It effectively means that the party has binned the report. By doing so, they have rejected yet another provision of the Good Friday agreement — the commitment to a "new beginning" for policing in Northern Ireland — that the nationalist community sees as crucial to creating the new dispensation the settlement promised them.
It is known that Irish government officials who were involved in the negotiations that led to the agreement view Trimble’s tactics with dismay. Said one: "He made the fundamental mistake of avoiding outraging his right wing." They spoke of a "despondency" about the course events have taken since last September when it began to appear that the first stage of implementation of the agreement’s instutional provisions — the setting up of a "shadow" executive by October — was not going to take place, thanks to a dispute over decommissioning. They fear that he is being dragged from the pro-agreement camp into the "no" camp.
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"The ability of the UUP to deliver a deal has gone down considerably," commented an official this week, following the rejection of the police report.
Meanwhile, the situation in the nationalist community remains more optimistic. Support there for the agreement is still high, in spite of the continuing setbacks. Sinn Fein has yet to finalize its views on the Patten Report. It is doubtful, however, if the party will reject it. The Sinn Fein leadership has said that it will "examine the Patten recommendations in the context of what was promised under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and in relation to the demands and expectations of nationalists and republicans."
It is most likely that this means that the leadership will spend the coming weeks persuading its members and sympathizers that though the report falls far short of the republican movement’s demands for the disbandment of the RUC, it is worthy of support and should be accepted. However, rumblings within the republican movement about the leadership’s failure to deliver what they promised cannot be ignored. Though it is unlikely that such discontent will lead in the near future to a serious questioning of the IRA’s committment to the cease-fire, both governments are following these developments with growing concern, especially given the prospect that there is no immediate hope of ending the current political vacuum, regardless of Mitchell’s best efforts.