The Northern Ireland peace process was on something of a roller coaster ride this week as rumors of an imminent breakthrough appeared in the press. Apparently, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, was preparing his party for a compromise on its hardline, "no guns, no government" stance, which has blocked the setting up of the new power-sharing government. But as a counterpoint to this optimistic scenario, it was suggested that former Sen. George Mitchell had set himself a deadline of mid-October, by which time the parties had to make real progress or he would pack his bags.
His review of the impasse is now trundling into its fourth unfruitful week. Clearly, the senator, who is a busy man, is not going to stick around forever waiting for Trimble and Adams to kiss and make up and get on with the business for which they were elected.
Unfortunately, given the current situation in the North, the indications of Mitchell’s growing frustration are more credible than the speculation about a possible Trimble U-turn. The latter arose after the UUP held a weekend "retreat" in Scotland to discuss its options, bringing along a couple of press pundits who reportedly argued that the party could only effectively challenge Sinn Fein on decommissioning by going into government with them. Otherwise, the Unionists would let the republican movement off the hook.
Alas, it is doubtful this eminently commonsensical line will have been enough to embolden Trimble to accept a position that he rejected last July, the scenario that envisioned power-sharing being set up, followed within four to six weeks by the beginning of the decommissioning process. Trimble rejected that offer — described by British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a seismic shift in republican thinking — and is not likely to accept it now. The murder of Charles Bennet, the Florida IRA gun-running episode, and the defection of UPP deputy leader John Taylor have all intervened to make it much harder for him to follow that route, though privately he might well believe that it is the way to go.
The truth is that Trimble is stuck and there is little that Mitchell or anybody else can do to unstick him — other than the IRA of course. And neither the IRA nor Sinn Fein see it in their interest to rescue a politician who seems already too weak to deliver his party’s support for the agreement, though it is a signatory to that agreement. No progress can be made until Trimble makes up his mind about whether he is for the agreement. If he is, then he should stop promoting actions that actually undermine it. If he is not, then he should say so and resign as first minister-elect and let both governments go forward and implement those aspects of the agreement that do not depend on the existence of devolved government in Northern Ireland.
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