Former Senator George Mitchell’s involvement in the peace process has been characterized over the years by a resilient optimism, sustained by determination.
So when he makes a comment as he did this week, while speaking before a group of U.S. businessmen in Dublin, that the process was "under great stress," people should sit up and take notice.
The former senator is not given to making gloomy pronouncements. His remarks should be seen as a warning flare that unless the current impasse is resolved quickly, the Good Friday peace agreement will sink.
Mitchell has a pull-out date, as revealed in last week’s Echo, and has warned that his overseeing of the current review is not open ended. There must be a sign soon that the Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Fein are prepared to do business and make some effort to resolve their dispute over "guns and government" — or else Mitchell will pack his bags and go home. Unfortunately for the process, Mitchell’s warning comes at a time when the UUP leader, David Trimble, must go before his party conference, to be held this week-end.
Any chance of Trimble attempting to do a deal before that can be ruled out at once. This means that we are looking at the beginning of next week as the earliest date for any attempt to resolve the dispute in a way that would make it possible for Sinn Fein and the UUP to sit together in the Northern Ireland Executive they were elected 15 months ago to form.
In other words, it will already be the middle of October, so close to what is believed to be Mitchell’s departure date as to make any hope of a resolution seem slim indeed.
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One wonders, however, if some people in the Unionist Party have actually grasped the reality of the situation they are confronting. The same day that Mitchell sent up his warning flare, Jeffrey Donaldson, the anti-agreement campaigner who was brought back into the UUP fold by Trimble, stated that a government could be formed without Sinn Fein if necessary.
Donaldson still has his feet planted in 1973 and his head in the clouds. That model of problem solving was tried again in 1991, with the Brooke talks, and failed then as well. The whole point of the current process, and the reason why people thought it had a chance of succeeding, was it relied on inclusion, bringing into the talks those who had been previously excluded. This meant it won the support of the republican movement and the loyalist paramilitaries. Without that support, based on the principle of inclusion, there is in effect no Good Friday agreement. The fact that John Hume, who made this principle a vital part of SDLP policy, is ill may have inspired this latest UUP attempt to undermine it. But the days are long past when a settlement can be cobbled together between the UUP, the SDLP and the Alliance Party, to the exclusion of others.
Inclusion has reduced violence in Northern Ireland to the lowest levels since the 1960s, and brought about what the vast majority of the Irish people saw as the best hope for a settlement in 30 years.
Those who disappoint that hope will not be forgiven easily — least of all by the British government, which might conclude that the North’s squabbling politicians will never deliver a settlement, and take it from there.
That is, if Mitchell’s warning flare is ignored, and the Good Friday agreement is allowed to sink, there will be few political survivors.