By John Kelly
The Fat Lady is rising to her final crescendo, desperately seeking that final, piercing high-C. But the song is not over.
Sen. George Mitchell has already exited, stage left. He put the final cap on his Northern Ireland sojourn by helping to rescue Harland and Wolff, builders of the mighty Titanic and the traditional mainspring of loyalist employment, from a rusty grave.
Somehow, it seemed to be a suitable finale. Before leaving, he assured his friends that he will return often to Queens University. But he made it clear that so far as he is concerned, the show is over, whether the fat lady has finished singing or not.
His success in the Belfast shipyard has been such as to persuade some wags to suggest that he should also be made honorary manager of the Northern Ireland soccer squad.
His peacekeeping role is finished, at least in the public sense. The choreography is all in place. The opera has yet to finish.
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It is now all up to the Ulster Unionist Party.
President Clinton has also made it clear that is now decision day for the majority party in the North.
Unionists can follow the Jeffrey Donaldson-John Taylor line. They can reject the final review report, as Donaldson has already suggested pegging it for a few months in the hope that they may extract something better.
There is no light for them at the end of that particular cul de sac. The IRA has gone as far as it can, much further and much more dangerously than some members can stomach.
In the welter of words accompanying the end of the Mitchell review, there are two hugely significant admissions in the IRA statement, signed by the eternal "P. O’Neill."
First and foremost, it voiced support for Sinn Fein. This may not seem greatly surprising, but you have to consider what it entails.
It has conceded that Northern Ireland should be governed as part of the United Kingdom. It has also agreed to support all of the policies enunciated by Sinn Fein since the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement of 1988.
It now accepts principles that it has never acknowledged in all of its long existence, stretching as it does to mid-19th century Fenianism.
It accepts that Northern Ireland will remain part of the British jurisdiction so long as the majority of its people wish it to do so.
It supports Sinn Fein’s participation in the devolved government of Northern Ireland. Ipso facto, it is also prepared to acquiesce to a government that will maintain that "Britishness" so long as the majority wishes.
No longer will it wage war against the partition of the island of Ireland. Instead, its members will join Sinn Fein in attempting to persuade the majority that their interest will best be served within a united Ireland. It will be an intellectual rather than a militaristic argument.
Of equal, if not greater importance, it has also agreed to appoint an interlocutor to confer with Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain in the decommissioning of its weapons.
The huge importance of the IRA statement should not be lost. This is the first time in its long history that it has ever agreed to disarm.
Never has it happened before, not even after the Civil War. It is no
exaggeration to claim that it is one of the most historic statements ever made in Ireland.
The war is well and truly over, so far as the Provisional IRA is
concerned. However, it does not mean that the violence will cease. In fact, it is eminently possible, given the history of the North, that there may be a further spurt of sectarian attacks against Catholics.
That is what normally happens when extremist loyalists perceive that nationalists are making advances. The war may be over, but the viciousness is not yet spent.
Then, of course, there is what has become known as the "Real IRA," as well as several other republican fringe groups.
Such considerations ensure that the IRA will not decommission before the establishment of devolved government. The reluctance is
understandable, but not to unionists, who claim bitterly that Trimble has sold out on the party’s insistence that it should take place before, and not after.
The first minister now stands on his own, promising that he can convince his party to follow in the wake of his support for the review’s conclusions.
Tired and hoarse, he pleaded that the decision of the Unionist Council, which is due to meet Saturday, is not the end of the road, no matter what its conclusion. And he claimed it is part of an "evolution" in Northern Ireland that will yet convince people that the right decisions have been made.
Directly opposing him, Donaldson accuses his party leader of dishonesty. The party, he insists, has made it consistently clear that
decommissioning must come before devolved government. And he states that Trimble is not following the party line. Almost certainly,
Taylor will share that view.
Mitchell put that argument in stark perspective when he argued that the only thing recalcitrant unionists can be sure about, is that if
the agreement is not put into force, there will be no decommissioning at all.
He is, of course, perfectly right.
Even more correct are those who claim that even if the IRA began to decommission tomorrow, many unionists would argue that it was not enough. If all weapons were yielded, they would still suspect that more were stashed away.
But if Unionists like Donaldson are seriously in pursuit of decommissioning, they will just have to join their leader in that leap in the dark.
If, on the other hand, as many suspect, they use it to resist devolved government in partnership with Sinn Fein, it will be another story
As Mitchell claimed, there will then be no decommissioning at all. The only game in town can only be replaced by something much, much worse.