Nothing so concentrates a man’s mind as the prospect of a hanging, to paraphrase the words of the English essayist and poet Samuel Johnson. So it is that British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, are putting on their thinking caps this week as the deadline of June 30 approaches. The prospect that faces them is the doom of the Good Friday peace agreement, hung by the neck in the noose of decommissioning. The scene of the execution is set. Now, it would seem, the only thing that remains to be decided is who will act as the hangman and pull the lever.
However, though the death sentence has been passed, the two prime ministers have not stopped trying to avert the disaster. Blair has warned that unless agreement is reached between Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist Party that will allow the implementation of the agreement, he will have to think of something else. What that is exactly has yet to be made clear. Ahern has appealed to all sides to resolve their disagreements. To no avail.
Events, meanwhile, continue for the most part to conspire against those who still believe a resolution is possible. Last week, unknown gunmen shot and seriously wounded an IRA informer living in England. This week, Patrick Magee, the man convicted of the Brighton bomb attack, which almost wiped out the British government in 1984, walked free. The two events have infuriated Unionists and Conservatives, who see the current peace process as a one-way street of concessions to the IRA. Republicans are benefiting from the Good Friday agreement — mainly by getting their men out of jail — yet at the same time have shown no sign of being willing to meet the "obligation," as Northern Ireland Secretary of State Mo Mowlam has termed it, to disarm. David Trimble, the UUP leader, this week accused Mowlam as having failed in her responsibilities as secretary of state, more or less calling for her resignation. He and many of his supporters want the release of prisoners halted.
Into this volatile political mix throw a few loyalist petrol bombs and pipe bombs and the scene is set for another potentially deadly conflagration.
However, there are signs of hope that the Drumcree crisis might be minimized, which would give the politicians a breathing space. The Church of Ireland Synod has issued an ultimatum to the Orangemen gathering at the Drumcree church, which belongs to its denomination. Unless the Orangemen pledge themselves to avoid violence, and agree to prevent crowds congregating on the church’s grounds, the synod says it will deny them its use. Though it comes a little late, the ultimatum is a hopeful sign of the growing unease among many Protestants about the behavior of the more extreme of their Orange brethren.
A satisfactory outcome at Drumcree would help defuse the sectarian time bomb that threatens to explode every summer in Northern Ireland. It might then be possible to salvage something of the Good Friday agreement, once passions have calmed down, even if the agreement has been put under "review," as seems likely if the June 30 deadline is not met.
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In the meantime, such a review will probably mean the suspension of the assembly and the withholding of its members’ salaries. Sinn Fein would be happy enough to see the assembly go as long as the other, more palatable aspects of the agreement — such as the equality commission — continue. However, this is unlikely to happen. The British cannot be seen to take only the goodies from the Unionists and leave the nationalists with theirs. Equality of deprivation will prevail. And at the summer’s end, if worse comes to worst, all sides will have to fight through the fumes of arson and riot to go back to the place from which they started conscious of yet another wasted opportunity. Such a prospect should indeed concentrate everyone’s minds. Or at least, those who still have them.