By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The March 10 deadline for transferring powers to the new Northern Ireland executive now seems doomed to pass without the hoped-for political breakthrough, mainly because of an impasse over arms decommissioning.
All eyes now turn to President Clinton, who, it is hoped, will again help nudge the deadlocked process forward, possibly with a special announcement during the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the White House.
Despite repeated pleas from the Irish and British governments, and from Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Seamus Mallon, neither the Ulster Unionist Party nor the IRA appear likely to move on the arms decommissioning issue in time for March 10.
Many are now hoping that the authority of the U.S. presidency will, somehow, be used to break the stalemate, as it has done before at difficult times in the peace process — although how that could happen is far from clear.
If anything, attitudes are hardening in both camps with the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, repeatedly insisting the IRA must decommission, while Sinn Féin warns of disaster if IRA disarming becomes a precondition to movement on the Good Friday Agreement.
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Trimble has refused to reveal whether he will try to exclude republicans if the IRA hasn’t decommissioned by March 10, or if he will seek to "park" the process and wait. Either is unacceptable to republicans.
Trimble insists the IRA’s word cannot be believed and that decommissioning is still possible. "I wouldn’t regard what they say now as reliable," he said on Monday after repeated weekend speeches from Sinn Féin warning the IRA will not disarm.
No, No, No
Meanwhile, the Progressive Unionist Party spokesman, David Ervine, said on Friday that unless "something dramatic" is done soon to break the impasse over decommissioning, the peace process will fail. Ervine said that those who created the agreement should be around a table thrashing out a formula to resolve the present crisis.
Mallon has called on the IRA to clarify its position on decommissioning by issuing a new statement moderating its "absolutist" position. He said the IRA had made three statements over the last year on the subject, all of which amounted to "No."
Mallon said that to resolve the problem both the Ulster Unionists, the IRA had to move slightly, and this should happen quickly. There could be neither victors nor vanquished in a compromise, he said
But all the signs this week were that his pleas are falling on deaf ears. Mitchel McLaughlin warned of "militarists" waiting in the wings and the Adams-McGuinness leadership being under threat unless there was forward movement.
Speaking in Drogheda, Co. Louth, on Friday, McLaughlin’s comments were the furthest any Sinn Féin spokesman has so far gone in public to point at the ultimate catastrophe, a breakdown in the peace process over decommissioning.
McLaughlin pointed to Omagh as an example of the potentially disastrous consequences of a political stalemate.
There was angry reaction, with Michael McGimpsey of the Ulster Unionist Party criticizing McLaughlin, saying it was "time Sinn Féin stopped threatening the people of Northern Ireland."
Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, dismissed what he called Trimble’s demand for the surrender of the IRA and said there wasn’t any chance of the IRA acceding to the unionists’ "unilateral" demands. Asked if this meant a return to violence, McGuinness said he wouldn’t contemplate failure.
Also, on Sunday, several thousand Sinn Féin supporters marched to Belfast city hall to protest at unionist demands for decommissioning. McLaughlin told the rally that the unionist veto must be removed or it would be held as a dagger to the throat of the peace process.