By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Northern Ireland was turned into a political desert this week as politicians from all the main parties jetted out to Washington, New York and cities across the world for the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
They left behind them a confused and demoralized population — with a party leadership threat stalking the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, and an increase in "punishment beatings" prompting fears of a slow slide back to low-level violence.
At a Sunday rally on the Falls Road in Belfast, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said the peace process was in a critical state and republicans are still angry at the decision by the British Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Mandelson, to suspend the Assembly and Executive.
"Once again we get a situation that Ireland votes and Britain vetoes," he said. "What Peter Mandelson has to learn is that you people will not and cannot be taken for granted. That is the message that has to be sent from here to Government Buildings in Dublin, to Washington and Downing Street."
To shouts of "No" from the crowd, he asked: "Are we going to stand by this summer and let Orange feet march down the Garvaghy Road or down the Lower Ormeau Road? Are we going to do something about it?"
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
Clearly stung by criticism of Sinn Féin from what he termed "ultra-republicans," Adams said any suggestion that what he wanted was a "return to Stormont" was nonsense. "They must be living on another planet", he said.
Against this backdrop of increasing tension, five men were shot within a 48-hour period early this week, including one man who was abducted by a gang of masked men from a house in Armagh and held for three days before being shot in the hands, elbow and legs.
Other shootings took place in loyalist areas, prompting both Mitchel McLaughlin of Sinn Féin and David Ervine of the PUP to appeal for an end to paramilitary "punishment" attacks.
President Clinton’s special advisor on national security, Jim Steinberg, and the National Security Council European desk director, Dick Norland, met during the week with local politicians. Adams said they were in a "listening mode."
On Monday, Mandelson made a fresh call for decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, saying those holding weapons were holding back political progress. He added there could be no long-term stable future for the North with stockpiles of illegal arms.
People needed to know that political institutions established were permanent and that "nobody has a secret plan in their inside pocket — or a gun in their belt — that they can pull out at some later stage down the road," he said.
Mandelson said that he believed real political business could be done this week in Washington. "I’m going there to have very serious discussions with all the people, representatives of all the parties, who will be present there."
Ahern calls for scale-back
Earlier, Mandelson said that security measures cannot be reduced until the threat of violence falls. He was responding to a call from the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, for the British government to scale down its military presence in the North.
Speaking in Australia, Ahern said all parties had an obligation to ensure that all aspects of the Belfast agreement were implemented in full, including a reduction in British soldiers, especially in areas such as South Armagh, where they were still a source of harassment.
"It is argued that there is no precedent for decommissioning," Ahern said. "That is true, in a narrow sense, but history also shows that arms can be put permanently beyond use in a manner that can ensure maximum public confidence.
"Paramilitary organizations on both sides must be willing to decide how to secure their weapons and put them beyond use. That is their patriotic duty."
The former chairman of the Northern Ireland peace talks, former senator George Mitchell, meanwhile, said he believed the current deadlock in the peace process could be broken if the parties concentrate on implementing all aspects of the Good Friday agreement rather than focusing solely on decommissioning.
Mitchell said it must be emphasized that all aspects of the agreement are interdependent and that no one of them will be successful in isolation. The former U.S. senator said he believed the war-weariness of the people in the North would help to push the parties to a final settlement.