By Susan Falvella Garraty and Ray O’Hanlon
WASHINGTON, D.C. — With the Northern Ireland peace process coming under ever increasing pressure as a result of the decommissioning/Executive impasse, all eyes will be on Washington for St. Patrick’s Day, when politicians of very stripe from the North gather for a day of glad-handing, speechifying, camera-posing and, hearts and schedule willing, some real political work.
President Clinton is understood to be clearing his desk in an effort to deal with both the sheer number of visitors as well as their various gripes, firm and not so firm stances, demands, and goals.
Between the press conferences, breakfasts, lunches, dinners and likely playing to the gallery back in Ireland, Clinton and his Irish policy team will be attempting to, at the very least, persuade and cajole the North leaders into or in the direction of some form of compromise in the current stalemate over the timing of decommissioning and Sinn Féin’s entry into the proposed North governing Executive.
With the deadline for the start-up of the Executive having been pushed back from this week to the week beginning March 29, there now seems to be some opportunity for concrete business in the U.S. capital over the St. Patrick’s Day period. However, as the days wind down, "concrete" would be a fair description of the positions being adopted by opposing parties, not least Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionists.
Sinn Féin’s leader, Gerry Adams, at the same time is looking anew at Washington and its possibilities. Adams was expected to be in Savannah, Ga., for the city’s parade on the morning of the 17th, but now it appears that he will be leaving the city for Washington after a Friends of Sinn Féin event at lunchtime on the 16th.
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First Minister Designate and Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble is expected to outline his party’s position in a press conference on St. Patrick’s morning at the National Press Club. With Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and North Secretary Mo Mowlam in the city on the same day, there is the possibility that a rabbit will be pulled from the hat, although not too many seasoned observers are betting on one.
One possible scenario that has been floated centers on a statement by republicans indicating a date upon which decommissioning might start, or a possible token gesture of decommissioning to coincide either with St. Patrick’s Day or the new Executive deadline. This, in turn, would be matched by Unionist acceptance of Sinn Féin’s participation in the Executive from the outset.
Before Washington takes center stage, several of the main players will be in the New York area. Both Trimble and Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon will deliver keynote speeches at the two-day conference on equality in Northern Ireland being organized by NYC Comptroller Alan Hevesi.
Mallon will address the conference session on Friday, March 12, at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, while Trimble will speak Saturday at the Columbia University leg of the conference in Manhattan. Both sessions are open to the public and details can be obtained from Dwayne Gibson at (212) 669-4382.
On St. Patrick’s morning, the public is also invited to attend an FOSF breakfast at O’Neill’s, on Third Avenue in Manhattan. Leading Sinn Féin members expected to attend include Joe Cahill, Martin McGuinness, Bairbre de Brun and Alex Maskey.
Meanwhile, House of Representatives International Relations Committee chairman Ben Gilman has criticized the decision to delay the formation of the North Executive until the end of the month.
"What we need today are not more delays and calls for symbolic arms decommissioning gestures," he said. "We need substantive power sharing, including Sinn Féin’s full participation in the executive cabinet won legitimately in the democratic process."