By Anne Cadwallader
STORMONT — Gloom bordering on despair was writ large on the faces of all politicians as they wearily gathered at Stormont on Monday to try to rescue the Northern Ireland peace process.
Even former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell’s smile wavered as he put a brave face on what appears to be mission impossible, although he insisted that the review would be short, and could be successful, given sufficient wisdom and courage.
Mitchell said he had no "magic wand" to wave to bring agreement about, but neither would he have agreed to participate, as a facilitator, if he did not believe agreement was possible.
It looks suspiciously, however, as though the two governments, unwilling to admit failure themselves, have brought in the Good Friday peace agreement’s architect, Mitchell, to witness its death throes.
Most observers believe the Patten Commission report on the future of policing in Northern Ireland, which is expected Thursday, will destroy the review process.
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Unionists and loyalists are poised to begin a massive campaign against the report, if, as widely believed, it proposes a name change for the RUC (to "The Police Service for Northern Ireland") and other radical measures to make policing more acceptable to nationalists.
Republicans will also vocally express their anger if the Commission does not recommend total disbandment of the force, particularly what they regard as a notorious Special Branch. Republicans are describing changes of name, badge, symbols and oaths of office this week as being merely "cosmetic."
Mitchell held separate meetings with all the parties on Monday and Tuesday this week and returns again from a trip to the U.S. next Monday to pick up the threads, hopefully after some of the anticipated furor over Patten has died down.
Shinners, UUP in
The Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Féin both decided to take part in the review after separate weekend meetings, but the UUP is refusing to engage directly with Sinn Féin or the two loyalist parties (the PUP and UDP) following recent violence.
No deadline has been set for the end of the review, but it is expected to last several weeks. The UUP’s annual conference is on Oct. 9 and that could act as a de facto deadline.
Mitchell said the review would be tightly focused, as set down by the British and Irish governments, on two subjects, decommissioning and the timing of the setting up of the power-sharing executive.
He has made it clear, both publicly and privately, that he is not prepared to listen to endless circular arguments, as he did for two years before the Good Friday agreement was reached in April 1998.
The SDLP deputy leader, Seamus Mallon, said there should be no recriminations.
"There is no point in each party trying to put the other in the dock," he said. "We were within touching distance of getting this executive set up. We must go for broke."
But both the UUP leader, David Trimble, and the Sinn Féin chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, said they did not expect immediate progress, although Sinn Féin also said it believed progress was possible and reiterated its "absolute commitment" to the agreement’s implementation.
"I’m not optimistic about the outcome. It seems to me we have a very serious problem, a more serious problem than in July. We want to see a future based on peace, genuine peace, not armed peace," said Trimble.
"I don’t want a society tainted and corrupted by those thugs being given power in the way the government proposes at the moment", he said in a clear reference to his supposed partners in the peace process, Sinn Féin.
"I don’t think the Sinn Féin leadership will rise to the challenge of declaring themselves for the democratic way. They have had 18 months to do it and they ain’t done it yet, and in some ways they’re going backward."
Accusing London of "turning a blind eye" to murder, by claiming the IRA cease-fire had not been broken, Trimble also voiced concern about proposed changes to the RUC and claimed the British prime minister, Tony Blair, was "engaged in a process of appeasing evil."
Trimble added that he is worried about the way Blair’s government has been behaving, particularly Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam, who, he said, wanted to rush through sweeping changes, not just in the RUC, but also in the criminal justice system.
McLaughlin said Sinn Féin is committed to the review and urged the UUP to engage directly with his party: "The portents for the immediate scenario of the review are negative because of the regression of the UUP to a harder and harder position," he said
Writing in the Irish News on Monday, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said the "depth or seriousness" of the political crisis should not be underestimated. However, he praised Blair’s "positive" approach and urged him to stand up to the UUP.
In contrast, Bernadette Sands McKevitt of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement said no republican should take part in the review which, like the Belfast Agreement, would not deliver "peace, justice or equality, let alone freedom, to the Irish people."
After meeting Mitchell, Trimble said his main concern — whether Sinn Féin is truly committed to peace — would be at the heart of the review and he repeated his mantra of late, "No guns, no government."
Mallon: more UUP excuses
Mallon said the Ulster Unionists had previously used the marching season as an excuse for doing nothing over the summer and are now using the Patten Commission on the future of the RUC in the same way.
It does no good, he said, for politicians to always claim the atmosphere is not right for change. It is their responsibility to create the right atmosphere for change, he said.
Over the last few months, said the SDLP deputy leader, the Ulster Unionists had broken every deadline in the book, while Republicans had not made any attempt to ease the position of Unionists.
Mallon also suggested, again, that Trimble should resign his position as first minister. Mallon himself resigned as deputy first minister after the Ulster Unionist Party refused to share power in an executive with Sinn Féin last July.
"Is it right for anyone to retain office without having the cross-community support for the policies that that person is pursuing?" he asked. "It’s for he [Trimble] to decide and for everybody else to make a judgment."
UUP deputy leader John Taylor is boycotting the review because of Sinn Féin’s involvement. Generally regarded as a pro-agreement MP, Taylor had already said that in his view the chances of the review’s success were "nil."
DUP leader the Rev. Ian Paisley said before going in to meet Mitchell that he was there to wreck the agreement, because it was designed to fill Ulster graveyards with the bodies of innocent people and bring Sinn Féin into government.
Meanwhile, a significant breach in the previous bipartisan policy on Northern Ireland between the British Labor and Conservative parties has emerged at Westminster. The breach could deepen in the weeks ahead as the Conservatives seek a weak point where they can attack Labor, which, since the last general election, enjoys a huge majority in the House of Commons.
It began when the leader of the Conservatives, William Hague, accused Blair of betraying the trust of the people of Northern Ireland. In an article in the Daily Telegraph, Hague said the decision to claim that the IRA cease-fire was intact flew in the face of reality.
Blair then launched a scathing attack on Hague, saying the Tories had insulted his integrity with their attack, adding that he believed some Conservatives clearly did not want the peace process to succeed.
"Before people say, ‘let’s pull the whole process to bits,’ which is effectively what the Conservatives are saying, they should really think about the future of the children of Northern Ireland and whether it is really a responsible thing to do," said Blair.
Blair said Labor had stuck with the last Conservative government "through thick and thin" in Northern Ireland, when it could have brought it down. But the Conservatives had now chosen a "different path."
Labor MPs pointed out that the previous Conservative government authorized secret talks with Sinn Féin while the IRA was still murdering soldiers and policemen.