It now seems likely that the current efforts to end the deadlock in the Northern Ireland talks will conclude for the time being without any final resolution of the disputes over policing, decommissioning and demilitarization, the three-headed hydra that has been threatening to devour the agreement for months.
The British government in particular will hardly want them to drag into another week with a general election to fight, perhaps as early as the beginning of April. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision not to come to Belfast this week is perhaps a signal that the parties are still too far apart on the outstanding issues to warrant the trip.
It is known that the Unionist Party leader and First Minister David Trimble is hoping that the Good Friday agreement will be placed in review, which means, in effect, all parties getting around a table and examining all the problems. If anything, this could compound the difficulties rather than resolve them. But the British are apparently getting ready to oblige the Unionist leader yet again.
A review would come as a relief to Unionists, who have been growing increasingly uncomfortable with the deal they signed up to in April 1998. It will, Trimble hopes, enable him to fight off the anti-agreement challenge from the Paisleyite DUP in the next election. Of course, Trimble will have to fight the election by attacking Sinn Fein and the SDLP, accusing them of having failed to meet the demands of the agreement in regard to decommissioning and policing reform. He has already blamed both parties for a "failure of nerve" when it came to meeting these obligations. However, this could easily spiral into an attack on the agreement itself, since anti-agreement forces can easily argue that the failure was made possible because of the way the agreement was framed in the first place. In the end, Trimble could provide ammunition for the very forces he is trying to oppose.
As an indication of the mess Trimble is in, his party has chosen more anti-agreement activists than supporters to run for Westminster. Among them are Peter Weir, who will be challenging Bob McCartney for North Down, the Rev. Martin Smyth, who was selected over Michael McGimpsey for South Belfast, and David Burnside for South Antrim, who, though he lost in October, has been selected yet again to go up against the Rev. William McCrea of the DUP.
No one seems sure exactly what a review, if imposed, will actually entail, or how long it will last. It will, however, generate even more unease within the nationalist community, especially the republican movement. Opponents of the agreement also lurk there, and will assert that once more Britain has proved it could not be trusted to deliver the reforms necessary to meet nationalist needs and has instead bowed to Unionism. As well, the post-electoral landscape might well be a lot more inhospitable to what’s left of pro-agreement forces on the Unionist side, making the chance of a resolution even more unlikely than it is now, whatever, and whenever, the review comes to a conclusion.