Now that the George Mitchell review has dragged into its ninth week, it is nice to see that at least one of the major participants, Unionist leader David Trimble, is approaching the matter with a real sense of urgency. Urgency to leave Northern Ireland, that is.
Trimble flew to the U.S. on Tuesday, the second day of the week that was supposed to be "make or break" week for the review. He said he had to go to Indiana to fulfill long-standing engagements.
Meanwhile, George Mitchell toils away in Northern Ireland trying to make a deal.
It is an extraordinary situation. But it is not the first time that the leader of the largest party in the talks process has goofed off in the middle of a crisis. Remember, this whole review was called because Unionists rejected the "Way Forward" proposals back in July. When the Northern Ireland assembly convened and the executive was supposed to take its seats, Trimble did not show up. Instead, he was to be found jabbering away in front of the cameras outside UUP headquarters in Belfast. This was seen by many as an act of contempt for the very institutions that the Irish government, the British government, the Clinton administration, as well as all the participants in the all-party talks, had labored for so long to set up.
Now, Trimble has done it again.
Recall that Mitchell canceled plans to return home this weekend in order to see the job through.
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Recall that in July British Prime Minister Tony Blair canceled his trip to the opening of the Scottish parliament in order to be in Belfast to try to untie the knot of decommissioning.
Recall that Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern canceled their trip to the Rio de Janeiro summit between South American countries and the EU in order to attend to business in Belfast.
Trimble, however, is content to leave it to someone else to sort out the mess that he and his party are largely responsible for creating, while he swans off to Indiana. It is reported that he plans to "brief" the administration in Washington as to the state of play in the land he has abandoned with such nonchalance. The official might do well to ask him why is he not there at such a critical time.
Trimble’s trip might be something more than just another example of bad manners. Since the beginning of this process in 1994, Unionists have been suspected by some of wanting to drag it out for as long as possible. Instead of initiating all-party talks following the first IRA cease-fire, as Britain had earlier indicated it would, Britain delayed, with Unionists demanding decommissioning. It was not until September 1997 — three years on — that those talks commenced.
Following the Good Friday agreement, the shadow executive was supposed to be set up in October 1998. More than a year later it has still to happen. Meanwhile, the agreement has languished, the Unionists refusing to implement its political provisions until the IRA hands over weapons.
The Mitchell review itself, supposed to last about three weeks, will next week being entering its 10th.
In July, the SDLP’s deputy leader, Seamus Mallon, resigned in exasperation following the Unionist Party’s rejection of the "Way Forward." He accused the UUP of bleeding the process dry.
That charge looks more plausible than ever as Trimble declares, "Indiana, here I come" and takes five days off from what many see as the most critical period of the entire process.
It seems that when the going gets tough, Trimble gets going — as far away as he can.