By John Kelly
At Stormont, it is no longer a case of stop-go. It is just a case of stop. Still, one cannot help thinking that this is not so much a cry of "No Surrender" as it is a whimper. It would be possible to feel some sympathy for the unionists if one were naïve. It was the very same obduracy, that characteristic stubbornness that has brought them to this point in history.
Gerry Kelly, the only leading member of Sinn Fein to make a public statement after this latest stoppage, confessed to having being puzzled as to how the Unionists could say no to the latest proposals after a brief 20-minute meeting last Wednesday.
I am puzzled as to why he is puzzled. Surely, he realizes that the unionists can say no without having any meeting at all? It is the biggest short word in their political armory. It is also the word that finally triggered 30 years of violence.
If there was a Nobel prize for patience, Sen. George Mitchell would be invited to Stockholm on the next plane from Belfast.
Two weekends ago, there were hot forecasts from journalists, momentarily excited after days of boredom, that the final breakthrough was at only a few pen strokes away.
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The mood was distinctly upbeat. There were breathless accounts of how unionists and republicans were even lunching together.
Could anything be more encouraging?
Picture Gerry Adams sitting with David Trimble. What did they talk about, the dreadful performance by the Irish rugby squad in the World Cup, or their vacations in Donegal and Cyprus?
The omens were favorable.
Then, crash, bang, wallop. Jeffrey Donaldson knocked any immediate hope of a settlement firmly on the head. No guns, no assembly, he repeated like a mantra.
Finally, just before the weekend, John Taylor hammered in the nail even more firmly. There was no point in reaching an agreement, he declared. There was nothing really new on the table.
Sen. Mitchell adjourned the talks for the weekend and jetted back to the U.S. He was going to give the parties more time for reflection, he said, making it clear that he regarded it as the final adjournment.
In Dail Eireann, replying to a question, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said that if the talks failed, both the Irish and British governments would attempt to ensure that as much as possible of the Good Friday agreement would be implemented.
The message, obviously delivered with the agreement of the British, was that if the unionists did not agree to the new proposals, both governments would take joint responsibility for Northern Ireland.
Inspired leaks had made it clear that there was indeed something "new" on the table, despite the dismissal by Taylor.
David Irvine, who has consistently been the most progressive of the unionist negotiators, leaked the news that there was "probably" certain proposals from the Provisional IRA.
And, as the weekend adjournment began, he also stressed his opinion that it was the best "deal" they could get.
"There’s nowhere else to go," he concluded. Pointedly, in the light of his revelation about new IRA proposals, he added that unionists could never have expected that Sinn Fein would ever agree to sustain British rule in Northern Ireland. Not alone were they prepared to support it, he said, but they could even agree to cooperate in its administration.
There have been dissidents, of course. Most notably, during a visit by a Provisional IRA "messenger" to Portlaoise Prison, one of the republican prisoners, Liam McCauley, jailed for the killing of Det. Garda Gerry McCabe, is reported to have lunged at him, shouting, "Sellout!"
It is clear that republicanism, both in the broad sense and within the Provisional IRA, is divided in much the same fashion as the opposing parties in the Civil War.
However, Sinn Fein has held the line. It is virtually certain that it has strong majority support within the prisons. The appearance of the veteran Joe Cahill for a walkabout during the talks, blacked out to journalists, was of great significance. Louder than words, his attendance spoke volumes about the inherent unity of the IRA.
The same cannot be said of the unionists. This is why it is possible to feel some sympathy for Trimble.
Only a handful of votes within his assembly party are necessary to scuttle the outcome of the review talks. The biggest factor in his favor is the absence of any opposition to his leadership.
That, of course, did not deter a low key Rev. Ian Paisley from turning up after the end of the talks to warn that two unionist leaders, Brian Faulkner and Terence O’Neill, had been dumped as the result of their willingness to cooperate with republicans.
Trimble will go the same way, he predicted, if he attempts to establish a government prior to decommissioning.
Paisley may be from the extreme loyalist right wing, but Trimble still has to heed his words. There are a sizable number within his own party who agree, at least privately, with his views.
He has to lean over backward in an effort to maintain unity. The temptation to scream "Back me or sack me!" must be enormous.
It would be extremely foolish to regard decommissioning as the key factor in the unionist failure to reach agreement. While it is a convenient hook on which to permanently park the new proposals, the real reason is an almost pathological reluctance to share power with republicans.
That has always been the great failure on the part of unionists.
Paisley was quite correct to cite the fates of Faulkner and O’Neill. What he did not go on to conclude is how many lives might have been saved in all of the intervening years if either had been permitted to succeed.
Still, many unionists, even the remarkably silent Ken Maginnis, know that the game is up and that they must grab what they can while they can.
For Trimble, the game is almost at an end. If the Nobel Peace prize winner cannot bring his party with him, he will just have to do what Paisley urges him to do. He will have to stand down as leader.
If it happens that way, and I doubt that it will, his successor will quickly discover the grim truth: There is no other game in town.