By Susan Falvella Garraty and Ray O’Hanlon
WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Clinton injected himself and his staff into the pursuit for a peaceful solution to Northern Ireland’s conflict even as talks headed for an impasse late last week.
The telephone operator on Air Force One was kept busy patching through trans-Atlantic calls as Clinton sought to propel the parties forward.
While flying to Lexington, Ky., Monday, Clinton spoke to Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble. White House spokesman Jake Siewert said that the president urged Trimble and all the parties “to continue their hard work at resolving the conflicts.”
White House officials said the call lasted about five minutes. Trimble said he had contacted Clinton to urge him to “do what he can” in the effort get the IRA to comply with the arms decommissioning elements of the latest plan, “The Way Forward,” set forth by the British and Irish governments as part of their efforts to set up an executive governing body for the North.
The president also held a seven-minute phone conversation with SDLP leader John Hume Monday evening.
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“The battle as we see it,” said one administration official, “is assuring unionists that they won’t have to sit in government with people who have reneged on their commitments; but remember, Sinn FTin has to only show a good faith effort to get the IRA to hand in weapons.”
President Clinton looks favorably upon the so-called “fail-safe” clause in “The Way Forward,” a document described separate by Sen. Edward Kennedy as “a very constructive solution.” In the last week, Clinton has over and over again reminded the parties that if promises are broken, then the parties “can just walk away.”
Spirits at the White House in recent days have mirrored those in Belfast. They have been up and down.
Last Thursday, Clinton spoke from the Oval Office with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and then moments later with Sinn FTin leader Gerry Adams. Clinton asked Adams flat out whether the current deal being put together would be acceptable to Sinn FTin.
“Hey, do you think this is going to work?” Clinton asked. Adams indicated that Sinn FTin was ready to make a deal.
One White House staff member said the administration had worked intensely to help formulate the proposal to put Sinn FTin into the governing executive while delivering a promise for decommissioning.
“I made 33 telephone calls in one hour,” one senior White House official said.
Members of the Clinton staff were dispatched to the White House Situation Room (normally reserved for sensitive national security issues) to help piece together the U.S. input into the plan that was eventually presented publicly at Stormont on Thursday by the Irish and British governments.
“Everybody’s got to comply with everything,” Clinton told reporters at the White House. “The United States plans to make all the parties hold to their commitments.”
Speaking directly to suspicious unionists who might not have faith in the promise of weapons decommissioning offered in the proposal, Clinton said: “The prime ministers have offered to pass a bill through the British parliament which would make it clear that if the General de Chastelain timetable is not kept, then the whole thing can be brought down. . . . No one is going to get something for nothing.”
White House officials said that in the coming weeks the administration will work to help unionists come to terms with their leader sitting in government with Sinn FTin representatives in what Washington hopes will be a stable government for Northern Ireland.
“Too much progress has been made to turn back now and the world just won’t understand why the parties would walk away on issues of sequencing rather than move forward on the important areas where we agree,” President Clinton said.
In other U.S. reaction to the latest developments, the Americans For a New Irish Agenda lobby group said that recent days had “demonstrated clearly” that the UUP was intent on wrecking the Good Friday agreement by insisting on a timetable of decommissioning that was “totally at odds” with what it agreed to in the Good Friday accord.
“Their failure to implement the Agreement and set up an Assembly will create a vacuum in Northern Ireland into which the men of violence will be only too glad to enter,” ANIA chairman Frank Durkan said.
“We urge the governments of Great Britain and Ireland to proceed with the other features of the Agreement, the setting up of Cross Border institutions, the Equality Agenda, the Human Rights Commission and the setting up of a Police Service capable of attracting support from the entire community, in order to forestall any return to violence,” Durkan, in a statement, concluded.
Commenting on negative unionist reaction to the Irish/British document, AOH national president Tom Gilligan said that his organization hoped that calmer heads prevailed and that the good Friday agreement would be “moved forward even as the loyalists play in their sandbox of self-loathing.”