By Susan Falvella-Garraty
WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Clinton, in an interview last week with the Irish Echo, praised the Irish government for removing the Republic’s constitutional claim to the North. He also said that while he has no definitive plans to visit the North, he isn’t ruling it out.
Despite this, there was continued speculation this week that Clinton wants to visit Belfast this month in order to place his personal seal on the recent breakthrough that has resulted in the first power-sharing government in more than 25 years.
Speaking by phone before departing the unsuccessful world trade talks in Seattle, Clinton called the Irish Republic’s removal of its constitutional claim on the six counties of Northern Ireland a fine and noble bargain in exchange for a lasting peace.
"They ennobled the people who agree with them, and who still support the concept of a united Ireland, because they gave them the only chance they could ever have to achieve their dreams — and even more importantly, they gave them the only chance they could have to have a full life along the way," Clinton said.
In the course of the interview, Clinton reflected on his role in bringing about the devolving of political power from London and more directly into the hands of elected representatives in Belfast.
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He carefully chose his words while discussing the issues that remain to be hurdled. On decommissioning, Clinton said the naming of a representative by the IRA to the de Chastelain Commission was a hopeful sign, but that great care was necessary with decommissioning. "I think you’ll see more movement in the right direction — if none of us, and none of them, do anything that makes it harder than it is already," he said.
Clinton said he understood why UUP leader David Trimble has threatened to bring down the government if the IRA fails to decommission weapons before February, 2000. "I spoke with David Trimble after his vote, and I believe that the language of the position that his party took was the language that was necessary for him to get his party’s agreement to George Mitchell’s formula," the president said.
Clinton said he would continue to reinforce the apparent political successes with economic incentives. He said the United States would continue to submit an annual $20 million to the International Fund for Ireland and offer specific funding schemes to the more disadvantaged areas in the North and the border counties.
He also reflected on his own specific role in the Northern Ireland peace process including his decision to allow Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams a visa to visit the U.S. in the beginning of 1994. Although diplomatically praising the final outcome of the efforts to broker a peace agreement for Northern Ireland by the then British Prime Minister, John Major, Clinton also indicated that his work on the process had at times not always been seen as furthering the so-called special relationship with Britain.
"He [Major] was tough on me, and the whole British government was, and they said, you know, we [the U.S.] had abandoned the special relationship and all that," Clinton said.
With regard to reports of an impending visit to Ireland, Clinton said: "I have to be guided to some extent by all of the people on the ground there who are dealing with events as they unfold. But if there is some good I can do by going, I will go and I will go whenever I can do that."
Mandelson: army stays
Meanwhile, the British military watchtowers and other installations that dot the landscape of Northern Ireland are not about to disappear anytime soon, Britain’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said in a visit to Washington Monday.
At news conference at the British Embassy, Peter Mandelson
responded to questions regarding the possible dismantling of the British army’s military posts in the North following the recent political progress.
"Absolutely not. There will be not be major troop withdrawal or the like. It’s been pure speculation," Mandelson said.
In a subsequent statement, Mandelson said any attempts at normalizing the North’s military status would have to be left on hold until all aspects of the Good Friday accord could be implemented. "It would be irresponsible, and expose the agreement itself to challenge, to ignore the continuing threat currently posed by a number of groups on both sides, and we shall not do so," he said.
Mandelson said any such removal would be hinged on "genuine cessations of violence and continued progress in the political process." He said his government expects to release a report on strategy for demilitarizing the North at the beginning of the new year.
Mandelson painted a depressing picture of Northern Ireland’s future political landscape if decommissioning is not achieved.
He indicated that periodic reports from the decommissioning chairman, Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, would have to
maintain a "level of confidence" on decommissioning or both he and the taoiseach, as already agreed, would bring down the elected assembly and its executive
Mandelson declined to respond as to whether he accepted the condition declared by UUP leader David Trimble that requires IRA decommissioning by February, or whether he would stick to the Good Friday agreement, which defined the date for the decommissioning process to come to an end as of May 2000.
Later in the day, at a luncheon hosted by the British ambassador, members of congress presented a letter to Mandelson urging the British government to "swiftly implement" the Patten Commission report’s recommendations on policing in Northern Ireland.
"We’re hoping that they agree that the report is just a start," a co-author of the letter, Rep. Chris of New Jersey, said.
The letter, signed by a dozen member of the House of Representatives, cited what it called "significant failures" and "significant omissions" in the report.
Smith, chairman of the House International Operations and Human Rights Subcommittee, described the report as "a minimal approach." He said that without systematic changes, human rights abuses would continue and peace in the North would be harder to maintain.
— Ray O’Hanlon in New York contributed to this story.