The three-week "cooling off" period following the reintroduction of direct rule in Northern Ireland, during which the British and Irish government waited in the hope that the blame game would run its course, has ended. But, unfortunately, the recriminations and the evasions go on.
Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin — the man who perhaps more than anyone in the party besides Gerry Adams is identified with the peace process — this week dismissed with impatience an Irish Times reporter’s questions suggesting that the IRA and Sinn Fein were at least partly responsible for the recent debacle. If taken at face value, McLaughlin’s claims — that decommissioning was not even an important part of the Good Friday agreement in the first place and that the IRA’s cease-fire should be enough to satisfy everyone — do not hold out much hope for the future.
Meanwhile, Adams himself has warned that little progress can be expected over the coming months.
Despite of such gloomy signals, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have set about fanning the embers of the Good Friday agreement in the hope that their endeavors will lend a blaze to its fast-fading flames. Paralysis, after all, is the greatest enemy.
Both the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labor Party, along with the Alliance Party, have all proposed a resumption of talks. The British Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Mandelson, has leant his weight to the talks proposal. The Irish minister for foreign affairs, Brian Cowen, has brought a welcome energy to the process. President Clinton has dispatched Deputy National Security Adviser Jim Steinberg to Belfast to meet with all concerned in an attempt to lay the groundwork for a fresh round of discussions when the main participants meet up at the St. Patrick’s Day festivities in Washington next week.
It would have been the crowning moment for Clinton’s involvement in the Irish peace process had he been able to preside over his final St. Patrick’s Day White House gathering with representatives of a functioning Northern Ireland power-sharing government, there to testify to an agreement fully implemented, and looking to the future with confidence and security. Alas, that is not to be the case. Acrimony and distrust have once more taken the place of confidence and cooperation. It is doubtful, regardless of the president’s level of involvement, if they can be easily removed in the immediate future.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
The UUP leader David Trimble faces a possible leadership challenge at the next meeting of his party’s governing body at the end of this month. He will be in no position to take risks. Nor is, it would appear, the republican leadership.
It is to be asked then what is there left for everyone to talk about? Will the upcoming meetings be another triumph of process over substance?
The trouble is that both the UUP leadership and that of the republican movement remain prisoners of their own, narrow and anti-democratic constituencies. No matter what pressure is applied to them from the outside, it is to those constituencies that they owe their current positions of power. It is this that has created the current inertia with all its attendant dangers.
However, it need not continue. If republicans and Unionists cannot meet their responsibilities in fulfilling the vision contained in the Good Friday agreement, then it is up to the two governments to move ahead with those areas of the accord that can be implemented. The agreement is far more than just a blueprint for devolved government. It contains a vision of a just and equable society that should and can be pursued.