By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The IRA is "definitively" committed to the peace process, while once again appearing to rule out decommissioning, according to a statement interpreted very differently by the political parties last week.
In another reflection of the deep frustration felt among republicans at repeated failures to implement the Good Friday peace agreement, Sinn Fein has delayed its response to the proposed review of its implementation.
The party says it has not decided if it will participate, and would only do so in the early days of the month, after meeting with U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who will be facilitating the review.
After a long meeting of the party’s ard comhairle on Saturday, Martin Ferris of north Kerry said, "No one should underestimate the extent of the crisis we are now in. Fourteen months after the agreement, we still have no executive, no all-Ireland ministerial council, no demilitarization paper from the British government, no human rights or equality agenda."
Pat Doherty, the party’s vice president, said there was no chance of the IRA decommissioning by the May 2000 deadline set down in the agreement. Disarmament could only be carried out in a political context.
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The IRA statement, issued Wednesday, said that the argument that the political process can deliver real and meaningful change "has been significantly undermined over the last 15 months."
"The agreement has failed to deliver tangible progress and its potential for doing so has substantially diminished in recent months.
"The credibility and motivation of unionist leaders who signed up to the agreement is clearly open to question. There is irrefutable evidence that the unionist political leadership remains, at this time, opposed to a democratic peace settlement."
"Over the past five years, we have called and maintained two prolonged cessations of military operations, to enhance the peace process and underline our definitive commitment to its success.
"The first of these cessations floundered (sic) on the demand by the Conservative government for an IRA surrender. Those who demand the decommissioning of IRA weapons lend themselves . . . to the failed agenda, which seeks the defeat of the IRA.
"It remains our view that the roots of conflict in our country lie in British involvement in Irish affairs. Responsibility for repairing the damage to the argument, that the present political process can deliver real change, rests with the British government."
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is reported to be reconsidering moving Mo Mowlam from her job as Northern secretary.
Mowlam has evoked hostility in the Ulster Unionists, who are lobbying for her removal in favor of Blair confidante Peter Mandelson, who resigned from the British government last year in a scandal over borrowings on a mortgage on his London home.
Mandelson is believed to be eager to return to mainstream politics, and a spell in Northern Ireland would be one way of shortcutting the length of time he spends in the political wilderness.
Mowlam, however, has made it known that she wishes to stay on in her job, and her popularity with the British Labor Party’s grassroots may make it impossible for Blair to move her.
The Ulster Unionists are believed to prefer Mandelson because he is essentially a man of the status quo who will be ruthless in imposing his will on Northern Ireland to rescue his political career.
Mitchell, who has agreed to facilitate the review of the implementation of the agreement, will begin work Sept. 6. It’s thought, however, that he will be available only for one week then and one at the end of the month.
He has held a series of meetings with the 10 political parties. He said he believed the pro-agreement parties are genuine in trying to breach the deadlock and that although he had never hoped to return to save the agreement, he was committed to doing so.
There are fears, however, that unionists will repeat demands for an immediate start to IRA arms decommissioning in September, and Sinn Fein will repeat that this is impossible in the current context.
On Monday, Ken Maginnis of the UUP, accused Sinn Fein of having "contempt for practical politics" and claimed the "inextricably link between Sinn Fein negotiators and the IRA Army Council is too palpable to be overlooked or misunderstood."
"There will be absolutely no compromise with armed terrorism," Maginnis said, accusing Sinn Fein of being "unable to shake off its commitment to the narrow, irredentist nationalist philosophy of the late 19th century."
Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern sparked unionist fury last week when he said he did not believe IRA decommissioning could now be concluded by the May 2000 deadline, although he said later his comments had been taken out of context.
Preliminary talks on the review at Downing Street in London ended with deep concern among republicans at the political vacuum. Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams admitted the process was now in "real trouble."
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly said Republicans had gone "as far as they can" and had shown "considerable flexibility and imagination." He insisted that unionism should not be permitted to veto Sinn Fein’s right to take up its elected positions.
"I have to accept that no matter how much disagreement we have with individuals in the Ulster Unionist Party, they have elected members. They should accept the same of me," he said.
David Ervine, the leader of the PUP, said the situation in the North was "jittery"’ and that "it wouldn’t take much to push one side or the other over the edge."
The UVF is currently undertaking a review of the peace process following the collapse of the North’s multi-party executive and is expected to make a statement on its deliberations in early to mid-August.
There was concern this week over an increase the number of loyalist attacks, with fears also of a loyalist feud between the UDA and UVF breaking out.
Blair, also held another round of talks with the main political parties. UUP leader David Trimble said after his meeting he believed that a devolved government was possible by May 2000, "I’ve no doubt about that, the question is who my partners would be," he said.
Sinn Féin leader’s Adams said after his meeting with Blair that the peace process is in real trouble, accusing the unionists of "tearing the Good Friday Agreement to shreds."
John Hume, the SDLP leader, said the situation was much more positive than the negative images of recent days would suggest. He drew hope from the IRA’s "definitive" commitment to the peace process.
Speaking in Dublin before leading a party delegation into talks with the taoiseach, Hume said that when the parties started meeting again in early September, with the marching season behind them, it was his hope that the difficulties holding up the implementation of the deal could be resolved very quickly.