Category: Archive

Editorial Deal in the making?

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The roller-coaster of hope and despair that is the Northern Ireland talks process has taken another turn upward this week, if rumors emanating from Belfast are to be believed. Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who has been chairing what is now a seven-week-old review of the snarled negotiations, left for the U.S. last weekend with a firm remonstration that by the time he returned — Wednesday — he wanted to see some results from the team of Sinn Féin and Ulster Unionist Party negotiators. Already the review has gone on for some four weeks longer than originally intended. This week will have to see a conclusion.

And the buzz is that Mitchell will get one that he can call a deal.

There has been a decidedly upbeat mood to the talks over the last few days. Observers have noted, with some surprise, that the UUP and Sinn Féin negotiators were beginning to "gel," as one put it. Another went so far as to describe the relationship between the two main sets of negotiators as one of "camaraderie" — a word that a few months earlier no one in their right mind could have imagined using when describing a Sinn Féin-UUP engagement. Could it be that at last the two sides are beginning to trust each other? That indeed would be a major breakthrough.

However, all the positive atmospherics in the world, the upbeat moods, even camaraderie, will not a deal make. There must be something on the table which the negotiators can accept. Is there any sign of this happening?

Informed speculation suggests there is. It is taking the shape of a shadow executive, with ministers designated but not actually in office until verifiable weapons decommissioning commences.

Unfortunately, this has been offered before and rejected by Unionists. So the question is, what would make them go for it — or something like it — now?

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The presence of Mitchell as a guarantor might well be a persuasive factor. If so, and the rumors prove accurate, he will once more have deserved the undying gratitude of the Irish people.

Of course, the setting up of a shadow executive was a vital part of the Good Friday agreement in April 1998. It was meant to have occurred a year ago. Instead, the Unionists balked.

It will be recalled that the purpose of the shadow form was to allow executive members to get to know each other and work out a relationship of trust that would enable them when the time came to function as an effective government. In the meantime, the international decommissioning body would begin to deal with the matter of weapons disposal.

It may well be that 12 months on, against all the odds, the necessary dynamics — based on trust — are now strong enough to make such an arrangement possible.

To help concentrate the minds of the negotiators to this end, Peter Mandelson, the new British Northern Ireland secretary of state, has this week issued his strongest statement yet on the necessity of doing a deal. "Nobody will have a decent future in Northern Ireland unless the Good Friday agreement is implemented," he said on Monday.

One official said that before Mitchell left he gave the participants "homework" to do. Let us hope then that they have done their homework well. They know by now the nature of the lesson that political failure in Northern Ireland teaches.

It is a grim one.

And it must not be repeated.

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