Category: Archive

Haass arrives in effort to defuse expanding crisis

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

President George W. Bush’s point man for Northern Ireland, Richard Haass, flew to Ireland and Britain this week for a series of meetings with government and party leaders after a spokesperson for the administration declared the situation "critical."

Haass, the director of policy and planning at the State Department, left Tuesday for Dublin. A spokesperson at the State Department said that Haass would spend part of Wednesday in Dublin before going to London, and then Belfast.

On Thursday evening, he is due to have dinner with David Trimble, the embattled leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. Haass is scheduled to return to the U.S. on Saturday after a round of meetings with Sinn Fein and SDLP leaders.

It is believed that there were no consultations with the president prior to departure. But Haass is expected to brief the president on his return.

Based on what he hears, President Bush will then decide whether there is a useful role for him to play in helping to end the current impasse in the peace process.

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"He realizes how critical the situation is," a spokesperson said.

Haass, who is a specialist in Middle East affairs, is described as having a "roving brief" on international issues but with a particular focus on Northern Ireland.

One observer who is close to the administration commented that Haass’s briefing trip is a sign that the Bush administration is "taking its role in Ireland quite seriously."

Haass will find a situation fraught with tension and mutual recrimination as July 1 looms, the date on which Unionist leader Trimble has said he will resign as first minister in the Northern Ireland assembly unless the IRA has begun to decommission its weapons.

An embittered Trimble told reporters at a press conference on Monday, convened after a round of meetings at the British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s residence in Downing Street, "My patience is at an end on this issue."

Taking part in the meetings, along with Trimble, were Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, and the SDLP chief, John Hume. Reportedly, Hume and Adams angered Trimble by pressing the British on demilitarization and police reforms. Unionists assert that there can be no further concessions until the IRA moves on decommissioning. Moderate UUP members blame their losses at the recent general and local elections on the fact that Protestants feel that the IRA has gained far more than it has given, and that further concessions would destroy the party and play into the hands of the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party.

The DUP took three seats from the UUP in the June 7 vote. The UUP also lost two seats to Sinn Fein.

Trimble faces a meeting of his party’s ruling body on Saturday, June 23. Though there has been intense speculation that opponents of the Good Friday agreement will mount a challenge to him, it is thought that it is now unlikely to develop. The rebel faction, led by Jeffrey Donaldson, is expected to wait it out until after Trimble has resigned.

There is so far no indication that the IRA will make a decommissioning gesture in time to prevent the Unionist leadership crisis from deepening. However, reliable sources have not ruled it out. But if it comes, it would be seen by republicans in the context of meeting the commitments they made on May 6 last year, when they said they were prepared to put all weapons verifiably beyond use.

As a further indication of the increasing tension in Northern Ireland, the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force is said by a reliable source to have warned the Irish government that in the wake of the assembly being suspended, any attempt to impose joint authority from Dublin and London would force it to end its cease-fire.

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