By Chris Thornton
BELFAST — President Clinton’s deputy national security advisor, Jim Steinberg, arrived in Northern Ireland this week for a series of meetings to prepare for a mini-summit on the deteriorating peace process in Washington over St. Patrick’s Day.
Steinberg, Clinton’s chief advisor on Northern Ireland, began a series of private meeting on Tuesday before returning to the U.S. on Wednesday.
"The purpose of his trip is to meet with British and Irish government representatives and with representatives of the political parties to gain their perspectives on the situation here and on how to keep the peace process moving forward," said a spokesman for the U.S. consulate in Belfast.
The U.S. administration is due to become directly involved in peace talks when the main pro-agreement parties, along with representatives of the British and Irish governments, arrive in Washington for the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebrations at the White House.
The task ahead of the three governments is enormous, as relations between the Northern Ireland parties have declined considerably since the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly were suspended last month. British Northern Secretary Peter Mandelson put the fledgling Northern government on ice when Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble threatened to resign because the IRA had not begun decommissioning weapons.
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In one sense, they have to do something," said one senior nationalist politician about American involvement in the upcoming talks. "They can’t be seen to have a party patting themselves on the backs if the whole thing is in crisis and they’re doing nothing about it. But what is there to talk about?
"This is a serious and very deep crisis and the governments, the British government in particular, seem to have lost the run of the game."
A full set of talks between the main pro-Good Friday Agreement parties has not taken place since suspension. SDLP leader John Hume has advocated such a meeting, along with variations from the Alliance Party, but the two governments have resisted the idea over fears that it would turn into an exercise in blame and worsen the atmosphere.
Added to the mistrust are reports of another threat to Trimble from his own party and continuing differences between Dublin and London on the best way forward.
Trimble is reportedly facing a leadership challenge when he goes before the Ulster Unionist Party’s ruling council for the third time in five months. The 850 council members — who met in November and February to approve Trimble’s entry into and exit from government — are due to hold their regular annual meeting on March 25.
South Belfast Assembly member Esmond Birnie, a strong supporter of Trimble, said reports of a "stalking horse" candidate to test the strength of Trimble’s leadership "causes me sadness rather than surprise."
"At the moment the whole world is concentrating on Sinn Féin’s internal difficulties and the IRA humbug and hypocrisy over decommissioning," Birnie said. "A challenge to David Trimble — or the expertly and mischievously leaked threat of such a challenge — will do no more than shift the spotlight away from Adams and the IRA at this very critical time."
But republicans interpreted any threat to Trimble as an attempt to keep the British government committed to shoring up the UUP leader.
Trimble’s party and the SDLP held one of the few political meetings this week, discussing possible ways forward as other parties began to talk of the process stagnating.
Afterward, SDLP Assembly member Sean Farren said: ”Quite obviously, we are in an impasse with respect to how people have understood decommissioning. We are not in a position of setting it aside in any manner to remove it from the political agenda, but are seeking ways of addressing it more positively.”
But, he added, ”It is far too early to give any precise implications as to what in effect might transpire."
Anti-agreement unionists said they would not be attending the St. Patrick’s Day meetings. The DUP leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, said: "It is time for Mr. Trimble to come absolutely clean and to make it crystal clear that there is nothing to negotiate about until the guns are given up.
The gun must go or else the IRA must go from government. There is no alternative. Action not words are required at this time."