The deadlocked talks which took place in London this week were held behind closed doors, with the press kept at bay, the players tight-lipped and refusing, for the most part, to comment. This was at the insistence of former Senator George Mitchell who is conducting the review of the Good Friday Agreement in an attempt to unpick the knot of decommissioning and find a way out of the "no guns, no government" position maintained by Unionists.
Whatever the logistical reasons for hiding negotiators away from the public eye, it is a sorry commentary on the situation. The people of Ireland overwhelmingly voted for the agreement in an open and free election. It is a disgrace that its fate is now being determined behind closed doors by political leaders who, in theory, should be answerable to the people who put them where they are but who in fact are more concerned about the internal politicking of their various parties.
It will be an even greater disgrace if they fail to reach an accord on implementing the agreement which the people, on both sides of the border, want and for which they voted in such numbers in 1998. Democracy will have been doubly damaged, first by the way at which the decision was arrived at and second by the decision itself.
Hopefully, we will have a more positive outcome. There is some indication that this might happen and a deal effected on implementing the agreement’s provisions in relation to devolved government.
As the talks proceeded, a consensus seemed to be emerging on three basic facts. The first was that there is still strong support for the agreement among the parties, including the Ulster Unionist Party whose leader David Trimble recently managed to fend off his critics. The second is that everyone involved in the review agrees there is no alternative to the agreement. And the third is the realization that the review process must come to an end very soon — within days, indeed.
The latter point has been strongly emphasized by the new Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson, who has said, in one way or another, on at least three occasions since he took office last week, that the governments have no plan B for Northern Ireland. It is the Good Friday Agreement or nothing. And when Mandelson speaks we can be sure of one thing. He is speaking for the British prime minister. The message is plain. But sometimes the most difficult thing to grasp is what is most obvious.
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Perhaps it can be phrased another way. Joe Louis, when world heavyweight champ, once summed up the nature of the boxing ring to spell out the fate of those who confronted him there: "You can run, but you can’t hide".
Messrs Trimble and Adams should remember that adage as they enter the final days of the review process, closeted behind closed doors. They can bob and weave all they like, whether behind closed doors or not. But eventually they will have to step forth and take responsibility for the job they were elected to do.
The people of the island of Ireland made their choice clear when they voted for the Good Friday Agreement. Now, they await to see that choice implemented by their political leaders.