By Jack Holland
Peter Mandelson swept into his office lounge on Millbank by the River Thames in London and immediately went on the attack.
Long before the reporter had even a chance to frame his first question, the Northern Ireland secretary of state was in the midst of an adament critique — not of nationalist objections to the Patten policing bill, nor of the diehard Unionist resisters to the Good Friday agreement, but of the manner of vice president Al Gore’s presidential bid. The Labor Party’s leading election strategist could not understand why Gore seemed to avoid using the Clinton economic legacy during the race for the White House.
As Mandelson sank into a cozy leather armchair and stretched out his long legs, he expressed utter bewilderment about how the election had been fought. It was as if he was impatient to plunge in himself and offer advice to the Gore team on how to win. It was evident that here was a politician on permanent campaign, a leader who perhaps preferred the electoral battle itself than having to deal with the complications of government. And nothing could be more complicated than administrating Northern Ireland, as Peter Mandelson has found since his appointment to the post of secretary of state just over a year ago. He has since become the object of heated attacks from Nationalists and Unionists, especially over his handling of the Patten bill and his decision last February to suspend the power-sharing government.
Unionist leader David Trimble’s ban on Sinn Fein ministers from attending cross-border ministerial meetings has complicated things further, and provoked demands from party leader Gerry Adams that the Northern Ireland Secretary should exercise his power and lift it. Mandelson has said he was not able to lift the Trimble ban.
"This whole process is a voluntary process," he said. It is about people "persuading themselves that they want to accommodate other people’s points of view." Any attempt to depart from that approach, he believes, and "to impose deadlines or ultimatums, would be counterproductive in Northern Ireland." He said that this applies as much to the Unionist community as to the Nationalist.
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He said there was some irony in the fact that it was Sinn Fein, which has always rejected British sovereignty in Northern Ireland, that was asking Britain to exercise that sovereignty on its behalf.
"I did make the point teasingly to a senior Sinn Fein personality," the secretary of state said. He recalled that Sinn Fein had denounced his suspension of devolved government as "precipitate, unilateral, unwelcome and unlawful, but now that the boot’s on the other foot, I’m been told to leap in with a panzer division to overcome Unionist resistance and order them to behave. No. I can persuade, I can cajole . . . and I have done that. I will keep doing that. Where I have an influence I will use it for the good of the peace process and the Good Friday agreement."
Mandelson questioned whether he has in fact the legal authority to act as Sinn Fein demanded.
"If I can claim that a minister is in default of an international treaty obligation that Britain has entered into, I can ask them to desist from what they’re doing," he said. "Now that is a very indirect and a very roundabout way of getting at this issue."
He emphasized that the problem "does not require a legal solution. It requires a political solution."
Mandelson had suggested that the current ban could be removed if the IRA were to reengage with General John De Chastelain, the head of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.
And if it does not?
"Then I’m afraid I think the process will unravel," he said. "It would be very hard to save the Good Friday agreement."
Some have argued that the British government and the IRA could "choreograph" moves, beginning with a further demilitarization gesture, to which republicans could respond by picking up the phone to De Chastelain. Thus they would not be seen to be directly responding to a Unionist ultimatum.
"I understand what the IRA says," Mandelson said. "I understand what the IRA needs. . . . I’m not against choreography — we’re better at this than the Royal Ballet. I’m not against sequencing or quid pro quo. But, first of all, you have to know what you’re going to get, and, secondly, you must have faith and confidence that you are going to get it."
Mandelson then ran off a list of what Britain had done since May:
"Army bases have closed, surveillance kit on two tower blocks in Belfast removed, another tower in South Armagh dismantled, a very intrusive tower in the town square of Crossmaglen destroyed, and other things, on top of a total of 31 security bases closed since the cease-fire, 3,500 British army troops withdrawn; troop levels now in the North of Ireland are at their lowest level since 1970. Military patrols are down 50 percent since the cease-fire.
"Now I acknowledge that in some parts of Northern Ireland where the security risk is higher, the military profile has not been reduced as much as we’d like. But what do people expect? We have now a dissident republican organization, the Real IRA, with numbers, supplies, with boldness, which is posing a direct threat to targets both in Northern Ireland and in Britain. By and large they come from, they move through South Armagh.
"I would like to do more in South Armagh, particularly with helicopter movements, which are very irritating to people. But I do want people to remember that if you do less in the air, you have to do more on the ground, which is arguably more intrusive. There is a security threat which cannot be ignored. But within that constraint we have reduced the military profile."
Mandelson then listed the human rights commission and the Criminal Justice Bill as further proof that Britain is honoring the commitments it made under the terms of the Good Friday agreement.
Mandelson would not confirm that Britain is planning another demilitarization measure but only that the normalization process would continue based on the advice of the present chief constable of the RUC.
In relation to the Patten Bill, Mandelson was asked why, if the bill was faithful to the spirit and the letter of the Patten report, as he asserted, Nationalists including the SDLP, see it as too weak.
"It’s partly the passion that they bring to this subject that I strongly sympathize with, it’s partly a negotiating posture, and it’s partly because some in the SDLP want me to go beyond Patten," Mandelson replied.
"Let me just stress, I recognize the deeply held views and the ambition of the SDLP have expressed for police reform. Anyone who has listened to and talked to Seamus Mallon, as I have done during this last year, couldn’t fail to be moved by the strength of his conviction and also his courage that if the reforms go well, he will go to any end in Northern Ireland in order to urge his support for the police service. I have colossal respect for that courage."
Over all, he strongly defended Britain’s recent record in Northern Ireland.
"We are on track," he said. "We are on top. I wish the same could be said for others, including the IRA, as well as the Irish government, incidentally, which hasn’t yet set up the human rights commission which it is committed to under the Good Friday agreement."