By Jack Holland
In a blistering attack on the British government’s handling of the peace process, the deputy first minister of the Northern Ireland assembly, Seamus Mallon, accused Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Mandelson of having lost the trust and confidence of nationalists.
Mallon said he hoped Mandelson “will go sooner rather than later,” though he has since denied that he is calling for the minister’s resignation. Mallon, who is also deputy leader of the SDLP, bitterly attacked the government of Tony Blair.
“Every time you try to be generous it takes all, misrepresents your position, and gives nothing,” Mallon told his audience at the National Committee on Foreign Policy in New York on Friday, Sept. 15.
Mallon who had just come from a meeting with President Clinton in Washington, was especially concerned about the fate of the Patten Commission’s Report on policing, accusing the British government of putting the whole Good Friday agreement at risk by minimizing and trying to “obstruct” many of the report’s “reasonable recommendations.”
“It is not a squabble about the RUC,” said the deputy first minister. “It is fundamental to the future of our society. . . . Unless we get over this one, the damage that’ll be done . . . will put everything at risk.”
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Mallon’s harsh attack on Mandelson was unusually personal. Observers believe that the SDLP is still angry over the letter that the secretary of state sent to a group of U.S. congressman last summer in which he claimed that the party in fact supported the government’s bill to implement Patten. It was no coincidence, well-informed sources say, that Mallon should have chosen a U.S. venue to deliver his vehement denunciation.
“On the very same day that the secretary of state appealed to us to trust him on police flags and symbols,” said Mallon, “he proposed a measure that would oblige the flying of the union flag over all government building — in defiance of the clear principles of the Good Friday agreement.”
“I’m sorry, Peter,” said the SDLP man, going off script and with emphasis, “we don’t trust you. We don’t have confidence in you.”
Mallon’s remarks have been called intemperate by some. Unionists were furious. The deputy leader of the UUP, John Taylor, responded: “Seamus Mallon is abusing his position as deputy first minister. If he continues this line, he will bring about the collapse of the Stormont assembly because the Unionist community will withdraw their support for him. He is beginning to go too far.”
In his speech, Mallon argued that the British government had staked all on preserving the leadership of UUP chief David Trimble, making concessions on Patten and the flags issue in the hope of shoring up what is seen as Trimble’s increasingly weak position as more and more Unionists lose faith in the Good Friday agreement.
While Mallon stressed that he accepted that “implementing these recommendations may pose difficulties for unionism,” he said that “nationalists have the right to parity of esteem within Northern Ireland. . . . The rights of nationalists, recognized in the agreement, cannot be dispensed through the filter of Unionist approval or disapproval.”
Then, departing from his script again he added: “The Good Friday agreement is not going to go away. David [Trimble] might, I might, and I hope Peter [Mandelson] will . . . sooner rather than later.”
According to Mallon, the strategy of saving Trimble at the cost of the agreement is doomed. Asked if he did not think Trimble was necessary to the success of the agreement, he told the Echo: “Neither David Trimble nor I are worth keeping if we can’t deliver on the agreement.”
Trimble’s party is facing a stiff challenge from the Rev. Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party in the by-election fight for the constituency of South Antrim this week. Observers believe that should the DUP win, opponents of Trimble will try to oust him as party leader, thus throwing the whole assembly into a state of uncertainty. However, according to Mallon, “there will be no heave against Trimble” even if his party does lose the seat.
“Unionism will sooner or later have to decide if it is in favor of the agreement or if it wants to be part of a county council type body,” he said. “We all have to stand on our own two feet.”