By Susan Falvella-Garraty and Ray O’Hanlon
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Amid mounting speculation that President Clinton might be drawn to the front line of the Northern Ireland peace process, the White House this week expressed concern over the continued inability of political leaders to surmount differences over disarmament and the formation of the executive body.
"The lack of progress is unsettling," a senior White House official said.
President Clinton spoke directly with British Prime Minister Tony Blair about Northern Ireland while the two leaders attended the funeral services for Jordan’s King Hussein.
Aides traveling with Clinton said the president told Blair that the U.S., as in the past, was ready to help move the peace process forward.
"President Clinton is very concerned about the situation," said an official, referring to the apparent precarious strength of the current republican and loyalist cease-fires.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
Speculation that Clinton might take hold of the peace process again was further fueled by a report Tuesday in the British newspaper The Guardian, which stated that " Clinton is to be drafted . . . to try to resolve the deadlock between Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists."
The paper reported that Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern would appeal to Clinton to "work his magic" over the decommissioning impasse and that Clinton was expected to "hit the phones" in the next few weeks.
"The return of Mr. Clinton highlights growing fears in London and Dublin that the agreement could unravel because of the refusal by David Trimble, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, to allow Sinn Fein to take its two seats in the 10-member executive until the IRA begins to disarm," the Guardian reported.
It added that the Irish and British governments were "publicly playing down" American involvement because they did not want political leaders in Northern Ireland to believe that they have given up on current negotiations.
White House officials, meanwhile, denied speculation that former Sen. George Mitchell would be asked to reprise his role as facilitator in the conflict.
"There has been no talk of George returning," an official told the Echo.
Talk of Mitchell’s return was instigated Sunday by Tanaiste Mary Harney while on a visit to Sydney, Australia. She speculated on ways of boosting the peace process, and mentioned Mitchell’s possible return.
"It may well be time for Senator Mitchell to deal with these negotiations," Harney said.
Irish government officials, however, quickly distanced themselves from Harney’s remarks and said no one in Dublin had asked for a renewed role for the former senator.
Mitchell, who is spending time with his family in Florida, did not respond to inquiries over the possibility of a return to the negotiating table. He is currently writing a book about his involvement with the peace process. It is expected to be published around the first anniversary of the Good Friday accord this April.
British Secretary of State Mo Mowlam, meanwhile, said she wouldn’t ask Mitchell to help implement the agreement he spent two years assisting to formulate. He’s already given enough, she said.
"I know George Mitchell has taken a continuing interest in the process," Mowlam told reporters. "I know he has got a young family and he gave two years of his life here to Northern Ireland. So I am reticent to ask — because he is such a good man — that he would come."
Any thought of reworking the agreement is undesirable, according to the White House. Irish and British government officials concur. But for Unionists, the idea of reviewing the accord has some merit. That’s where Mitchell could come in.
Trimble said this week that the possible use of a third party to conduct a review of the accord might be useful.
This prompted a quick retort from Washington. "That is not the direction we wish to go," a White House official said.
At last Friday’s Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Clinton openly proclaimed concern about the situation.
"I ask you to pray for peace in the Middle East in Bosnia and Kosovo and in Northern Ireland, where there are new difficulties," Clinton said.
The president seemed to speak to both sides as he concluded: "Remember that all the great peacemakers in the world in the end have to let go and walk away, like Christ, not from apparent, but from genuine, grievances."