Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who this week has once more plunged into the thicket of Northern Ireland politics in an attempt to salvage the political process, is going in well armored by experience. After all, he spent month after troublesome and frustrating month between September 1997 and April 1998 doing what many thought could not be done: bringing about an agreement between all warring parties, save the Rev. Ian Paisley’s DUP.
Saint’s are rare in Northern politics and miracles even rarer. But this St. George has already confronted the dragon of inflexibility, which in the North has more than one head. Unfortunately, as we now know too well, the fact that he managed to see off the beast the first time was no guarantee that it would not return. Nor is it a guarantee that this time round, St. George will succeed.
The 1998 success was achieved because a decision about the most difficult issue of all, decommissioning, was postponed. The Unionists have now made that the test of whether or not Sinn Fein should be allowed into government. In July, despite the best efforts of both the Irish and British governments to come up with a suitable compromise, the issue remained unresolved and as a result the new government of Northern Ireland was stillborn.
George Mitchell began this latest rescue effort by admitting he had no "magic wand," and that if the problem was to be resolved, it had to be by the participants themselves. His role was that of the facilitator, the listener who, having heard all points of view, can then seek out among them some common ground on which progress can be made. He made it clear that his "review" of the situation would be tightly focused on the "no-guns, no-government" dispute.
Though there is no official time limit set for the review, it is unlikely that it will last more than three or four weeks.
Almost nobody is optimistic that it will be possible within that period to resolve a problem that has dogged the political process for almost five years. The Unionists have linked the setting up of the new government to disarmament and are not likely to abandon that link — to do so would probably cost David Trimble, the party leader, his position. The IRA, of course, has not made matters are simpler by recent acts and threats of violence.
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Also working against Mitchell this time is the fact that support within the Unionist Party for the Good Friday agreement has crumbled since 1998. In addition, there is increasing disillusionment within the republican movement that the agreement can deliver. The euphoria of April 1998 vanished long ago. The only people who seem as keen on the agreement now as then are the Irish people. However, it would appear that they do not count. But then they never have in the calculations of many of those who dominate the current political process in the North. In the end, St. George might well conclude that the only people who can vanquish the dragon of intransigence are the people who have to live with it.