By Jack Holland
As former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell flew back to the U.S. last weekend, leaving the peace talks participants a last opportunity to reach an accord on implementing the Good Friday peace agreement, the outline of a possible deal has emerged, say usually reliable sources. It would take the form of a shadow executive, with ministers appointed to their seats but without actually taking them, followed soon by "reciprocation" from the IRA in the form of a decommissioning gesture. At the end of 12 weeks, the executive would "go live" with ministers actually taking their designated seats.
Mitchell, who has been conducting a seven-week review of the impasse created by the Ulster Unionist Party’s refusal to sit in an executive with Sinn Fein members unless decommissioning begins, would act as a guarantor, backed up by the British and Irish governments and the Clinton administration.
If the IRA failed to meet its commitments, the shadow executive would simply dissolve.
Reliable sources are now suggesting that the UUP would accept this as a solution to the "no guns, no government" dispute that has blocked the agreement’s implementation for almost 18 months. One Unionist source called the postulated deal "feasible." He said that "the key to selling the idea to the UUP is convincing them that a shadow executive is not an executive."
A spokesman for the party leader, David Trimble, had no comment to make on the suggestion.
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Meanwhile, a virtual news blackout reigned as the UUP and Sinn Fein met this week behind closed doors after Mitchell had given them what one official described as "homework" to do before his return to Belfast on Wednesday.
Irish government skeptical
Irish government officials are skeptical of the rumored deal, although one said that the idea of a shadow executive had been mooted earlier on in the year and had found some supporters among Dublin officials. Indeed, the establishing of a shadow form of executive was built into the Good Friday agreement and was meant to take place a year ago.
Paragraph 35 of the agreement envisioned a "transitional period" with "members of the Assembly serving as shadow Ministers" during which time they will "affirm their commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means . . . to work in good faith to bring the new arrangements into being."
However, at the time it was rejected by the UUP, who maintained that there was really no difference between the shadow executive and the real thing.
Something similar to the shadow executive option was proposed last weekend by the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition as a possible way out of the impasse. On Friday, party leader Monica McWilliams said that the designated ministers "would work together to form a government" and prepare for full devolution.
Pressure on parties
This week, pressure was building on both Sinn Fein and the UUP to resolve their difficulties. Speaking during a visit to RUC headquarters on Monday, the new Northern Ireland secretary of state, Peter Mandelson, said that "nobody will have a decent future in Northern Ireland unless the Good Friday agreement is implemented."
"Everyone needs it to be implemented," he said. "Everyone stands to gain in every part of every community in Northern Ireland, we all need it desperately. . . . I believe that the politicians want to do a deal to implement the agreement." Mandelson has repeated this line on nearly every occasion he has spoken since taking up the post.
Observers have noted a small rise in optimism among the talks participants, following a period of gloom. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams went from New York, where he said on Thursday that there was only a "very tiny possibility" of the Mitchell review succeeding, to a somewhat more upbeat assessment in Belfast, where he said that there was "still life" in the review.
UUP leader David Trimble reiterated this sentiment. The fact that the party has chosen UUP assembly member Dermot Nesbitt to deal with questions regarding the review is interpreted as a hopeful sign, since Nesbitt is among the most enthusiastic Unionist backers of the Good Friday agreement.
There has also been much talk about the good "atmospherics" and the good "chemistry" surrounding the latest UUP-Sinn Fein negotiations.
"The chemistry’s good, but you got to get the physics right," commented Chris McGimpsey, a UUP council member for West Belfast.
The search for an accord is influenced by anxiety within the republican movement about rising opposition to the leadership’s course. When Adams was in the U.S. last week, sources say he told a top official in the Clinton administration that there was a growing lobby within Sinn Fein to withdraw from the assembly if an executive is not formed.
Republicans are also threatened by the increase in support for the dissident republican faction, the Real IRA. Reliable sources in the security forces say that membership of the group has trebled within the last year to about 150 members.
Last week, police arrested and charged six men in County Meath in connection with arms finds near a bunker. Also arrested was a 14-year-old boy. Three others were also held at the same time. All are said by the police to be linked to the RIRA. According to sources, among those arrested was the second in command to the RIRA’s chief of staff, Mickey McKevitt, as well as one of the group’s top bomb makers.
Another arms find occurred on Monday, also linked to the RIRA, and included a new Russian-made rocket launcher of a type not seen before in Ireland.
Sources say the group is "desperate" to launch an attack, and thus precipitate, it hopes, another crisis is the already strained peace process.