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Inside File Almost the peacesky processky

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

He didn’t fancy Shannon airport much, but, according to a newspaper report, Boris Yeltsin had his somewhat glazed eyes fixed on Belfast and fancied himself as the peacebroker George Mitchell eventually became.

Imagine, if the Russian leader had got his way we wouldn’t be talking about the Good Friday accord, because the Russians usually celebrate Easter on a different date. And it might be the Kremlin, as opposed to Stormont, agreement that is currently weathering the political storms of early winter.

The Russian leader’s aborted bid to get the job that eventually went to Mitchell has remained a closely guarded secret, according to the Guardian newspaper.

And it could have been Yeltsin who got a Nobel prize in Oslo last week if things had turned out differently, the newspaper claimed.

Yeltsin’s brush with the wee North arose when Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were holding private discussions during a May 1997 meeting of NATO leaders in Paris.

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Yeltsin dropped in with an interpreter and Clinton explained they had been discussing Northern Ireland and the need to kick start the peace process.

An internationally respected figure was needed and Mitchell had been playing hard to get at the time, the paper reported.

"Wait a moment," suggested a jovial Clinton, trying to draw Yeltsin into the conversation, "Maybe Boris would like to do the job."

Laughter and backslapping followed and the conversation turned to nuclear weapons, international debt and the Middle East.

But after a few minutes, Yeltsin leaned over and whispered to his interpreter, who interrupted Clinton. "The president says that he has accepted your offer to chair the peace talks in Northern Ireland," the interpreter said.

Clinton and Blair "made brief, panicked eye contact." Trying not to sound rude, Blair stressed the exceptional time demands and Clinton took care to thank Yeltsin for his interest.

The conversation moved on to other matters, but after a few minutes, Yeltsin again leaned over to his interpreter.

Very politely, the interpreter coughed and intervened again. "The president says he will begin his Northern Ireland peace mission next Monday. He has a free week to fly to Belfast to begin work."

This time, Blair and Clinton had to be more forthright. It was a regrettable misunderstanding, most unfortunate . . . thanks but no thanks, the newspaper said.

Think about it, Yeltsin rattling around Stormont knocking heads and drowning them all in Stoli. The piss process. The North leaders, even Paisley, would have signed up to anything after a few days in the grip of the man who kept Albert, leader of all the Irish, twiddling his thumbs on the Shannon tarmac while he snored away on the plane, "indisposed," as one of his aides delicately put it. Still, given all the current woes, "IF" reckons that it’s not too late. Has anybody got Boris’s number?

Paper cries foul

And Speaking of the Guardian. The paper is crying foul over letters it has received from two law firms in Dublin on behalf of the Birmingham Six. Seems that before the last British general election the paper carried nasty statements from a Tory MP with regard to several groups of people, including the Birmingham Six. The Guardian, which traditionally favors the Labor Party in British politics, ran the statements in full. One line from the MP, David Evans, suggested that the B6 had killed hundreds of people before they were caught. The voters duly tossed Evans out and the Guardian felt it had played some part in this outcome by exposing the man’s ridiculous and unfounded allegations.

But next thing came the letters, "the gravest case of libel this firm has ever had to deal with" . . . and so forth. Under British — and Irish — libel laws, you can be prosecuted for carrying libel as well as uttering the slander, even if you yourself do not subscribe to the sentiments expressed. In the case of The Guardian and Evans’s rabid ramblings, this was absolutely the case.

Probably no paper in Britain — or even Ireland — gave the Six as consistently fair and concerned coverage during their prison ordeal. So not surprising then that the daily came out with a headline over a column the other day: "Shame on the Birmingham Six for bringing this gold-digging lawsuit." A sub-heading below said: "They should pick on their enemies, not their friends. They, of all people, should not use the libel laws to suppress out legitimate journalism."

"IF" was wondering if the B6 actually knew that the solicitors were sending writs to foe and friend alike.

Hibernia rules (half) the waves

When cross-border bodies are mentioned, the immediate inclination is to think in terms of terra firma. But water also forms a boundary in Ireland and in the cases of Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough, there is an issue as to exactly where the boundary between North and South actually, well, floats. Word has it that the Ulster Unionist Party is particularly keen to discuss marine issues with the wee Republic if for no other reason than to pepper the Southerners with legalistic argument regarding the exact drop where Hibernia supposedly gives way to Britannia.

For years, Irish governments have regarded the waters of both Foyle and Carlingford Loughs as Irish territory. In practice, however, governments have tended to recognize an invisible line in the water.

In Carlingford Lough, for example, Irish authorities will grant aquaculture licenses extending to only a rough halfway point between the land masses of Counties Louth and Down.

Just what the changes to Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution really entail might only become clear if and when unionist politicians and representatives from south of the border gather around a table and start arguing over things like the Irishness or Britishness of the wandering crabs.

Meanwhile, an even more curious maritime fact has surfaced in Youghal, Co. Cork, the picturesque town where scenes from the Gregory Peck version of "Moby Dick" were shot back in the 1950s. The waters in Youghal’s harbor are Irish and that’s beyond dispute. But it turns out that the seabed in the harbor still belongs to the Duke of Devonshire. Youghal Urban District Council now wants his dukeness to hand over the mud and silt before too many more tides ebb and flow. Legal action is apparently contemplated. Of course, they could just rent a submarine and take possession of the seaweed by force? Failing that, they could buy some British tea and chuck it in the harbor. All this makes you wonder if the 20th century happened at all.

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