By Susan Falvella-Garraty
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble said last week that the time was not right for President Clinton to intervene in the current Northern Ireland peace process initiative.
After a private meeting with deputy national security advisor Jim Steinberg, Trimble praised the White House’s knowledge of the situation but cautioned against immediate mediation by the president.
"The president is always willing to do what he can, but he needs more advice from the parties on the ground as to when or what he can do to be effective at this time," Trimble said.
Trimble had several speaking engagements in the U.S. last week and his itinerary culminated with a visit to the White House on Thursday and Capitol Hill Friday.
"We would need to have some specific objective in mind, which isn’t as yet clear," Trimble said of Clinton’s role.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
In advance of Trimble’s meeting with Steinberg, newspapers in Ireland were reporting that Clinton was ready to step into the troubled talks.
Trimble, meanwhile, did express optimism that issues still revolving around the proper implementation of the Good Friday accord would be resolved "sooner rather than later."
And following a meeting Friday morning with the co-chairs of the congressional Ad Hoc Committee for Irish Affairs, Trimble said that "a sense of crisis" should not be created as a result of the apparent problems facing the talks..
Trimble reassured those attending the meeting, including Reps. Peter King, the New York republican, and Richard Neal, the Democrat from Massachusetts, that he and his party were committed to making progress and that there was confidence in the process.
Trimble told the representatives that the U.S. Congress had a role to play at this time. He asked them to exert whatever influence they had on the IRA to agree to arms decommissioning. The members that met with Trimble agreed that the UUP leader seemed to be committed to the Good Friday accord.
Neal, who also spoke to former Sen. George Mitchell while he was in Washington last week, said that he awaited the completion of Mitchell’s now 10-week review of the agreement and thought the U.S. would be in a good position to offer even greater input once Mitchell’s report is made public.
Neal described the meeting with Trimble as "cordial" and "better than some we’ve had."
Separately, the Ad Hoc members had issued a statement urging full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
"We urge the unionists to recognize the imperativeness of the agreement and further urge them to immediately establish the Executive so that the Good Friday agreement can work. There is no alternative," the statement said.
Before Trimble’s arrival in Washington, Mitchell had gone directly from his briefing of British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London to a meeting with President Clinton in Washington late Wednesday night. The two met for over an hour in the residence portion of the White House.
Afterward, White House officials refused to characterize the meeting owing to the "sensitive time" the talks had reached.
"One of the reasons that Senator Mitchell is there is because of our commitment to the process," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.
Lockhart said the meeting with Mitchell was important because of Clinton’s continued personal commitment to the process.
"I think the fact that the discussions are ongoing demonstrates a commitment from many sides to this process," Lockhart said.
The White House said that the chief Sinn Féin negotiator, Martin McGuinness, also spoke with Steinberg last week. "We believe the process is moving forward and the president stands ready to lend any support he can," said a White House spokesman.
Meanwhile, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern is due to arrive in New York Wednesday for a three-day visit devoted primarily to business and economic development issues.
Ahern will deliver the Irish government’s current assessment of the peace process Friday at an event in Manhattan hosted by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.