By Patrick Markey
and Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Former U.S. Senator and Good Friday agreement architect George Mitchell will play a central facilitating role as British and Irish officials attempt to salvage Northern Ireland’s faltering peace process after the collapse of the province’ new executive last Thursday.
Mitchell met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Irish taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, in London for 90 minutes Tuesday as the both government’s laid out the guidelines on how they will review Northern Ireland’s political process after the summer.
The review will have a tightly focused timetable and will be limited to the troublesome issues of decommissioning paramilitary arms and the devolvement of power from London to the new Stormont executive, an Irish government official said.
The review will be based only on the three principles established by the two governments in June: an inclusive executive leading to devolvement of power, decommissioning by May 2000, and decommissioning overseen by the independent international commission.
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Talks will focus on how to overcome the practical difficulties in implementing those issues, and the review process is expected to be “speedy,” lasting weeks rather than months, the official said.
Mitchell is expected to meet with the Northern Irish parties in the executive for preliminary talks over several days this week or next week to sound out their ideas on how the review should take place. The review will then break for August and resume in September when Mitchell will meet the parties again for more detailed talks.
Just hours before the two governments met with Mitchell, Ahern also held a meeting with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble at the Irish Embassy in London, the official said.
The invitation to Mitchell to rejoin negotiations is the latest move by both governments to piece together a political process left in tatters by last week’s debacle. With Irish and British politicians departing for their summer vacations the future of the Good Friday agreement remains unclear. A review in the fall will take place as the Patten Report on the future of the RUC is also due to be released.
Last Thursday was a day of high drama and low farce in Belfast. The Ulster Unionists refused to show up to nominate their ministers to the Northern Ireland Executive, prompting the adjournment of the Assembly and the review of the entire political process.
At the heart of the row was the vexing issue of the hand over of paramilitary weapons. Two weeks earlier, the two governments had proposed a formula that had the backing of Sinn Fein and the other parties, but the guarantees in the so-called “Way Forward” document included were apparently not strong enough for the Ulster Unionists.
The UUP is still insisting on decommissioning of IRA arms before the setting up of the Executive. Even the British government’s offer last week of a decommissioning timetable, a move that angered Sinn Fein and perplexed the Irish government, did not placate the Unionists.
During Thursday’s meeting deputy first minister of the Assembly, Seamus Mallon of the SDLP resigned and Trimble, the first minister, is under pressure to do the same.
So the process landed on Thursday morning in a shambles that left the politicians in a state of shock and the two governments frustrated. The British prime minister and the taoiseach had spent five days in around-the-clock negotiations two weeks ago.
Since then, emergency legislation was rushed through the House of Commons and three amendments were proposed at the last minute, among them the offer of the decommissioning timetable, all in a bid to entice the Ulster Unionists to take part in the Executive.
Speaking at Westminister, Britain’s Northern Ireland secretary, Mo Mowlam expressed her disappointment that “The Way Forward” — a document that she described as “a balanced approach which could have succeeded” — had apparently failed, but said she did not want to apportion blame because “the last thing Northern Ireland needs is a round of recrimination.”
“Today has been a setback,” she said. “It would be foolish to suggest otherwise. But progress has been made and I place my trust in the people of Northern Ireland . . . who are so bitterly disappointed.”
She said the next step was to institute a formal review of proceedings under the agreement and said that she would be available throughout the next week for dialogue with all the main parties in Northern Ireland.
Announcing his decision not to attend the Assembly meeting, Trimble said the process “should not be crashed; it should be parked.”
“We are now in the summer, and it is now appropriate for us all to take time to review the situation, to think things through, to sort out the legislation, to prepare for the next stage, which I hope we will resolve positively,” he said.
But Sinn Fein has called for Blair to dismiss Trimble as Northern Ireland’s first minister. Sinn Fein’s president, Gerry Adams, accused Unionists of being wedded to an “Afrikaaner mentality,” and of refusing to accept change.
“What we saw today was the last hurrah of the Paisley-type ethos that has so distorted Northern Irish politics,” Adams said, insisting his party would continue to seek to work with groups from across the sectarian divide.
Adams said he had not given up on the ability of the British prime minister to review his stewardship of the peace process and forge a deal.
“Trimble once told me things might work out, but it might take a different agreement. We’re not going along with that. The Belfast Agreement is either a ladder out of injustice, discrimination and inequality or it is a sham,” Adams said.
Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness said the refusal of unionists to sit in the Executive had nothing to do with decommissioning. He pointed out that the Progressive Unionist leader, David Ervine, had condemned the Ulster Unionists’ actions, saying they were “committing political suicide for very narrow and base reasons.”
SDLP leader, John Hume, said despite the farcical nature of the Assembly sitting, it could not be seen to sound the death knell of the agreement.
“What we are attempting to do in Northern Ireland is of such vast importance to everyone who lives here that we simply cannot give up, or even become unduly pessimistic,” he said.