By Susan Falvella-Garraty
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The White House is this week actively working on ways to remove the decommissioning impasse from the troubled Northern Ireland peace process.
President Clinton, meanwhile, has indicated that Northern Ireland remains a prime foreign policy issue for his administration.
But even as Washington’s efforts were winding up, the Ulster Unionist Party threw another spanner in the works Tuesday by rejecting proposals from SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon aimed at breaking the decommissioning stalemate.
The UUP reaffirmed its commitment to seeking IRA decommissioning before Sinn Féin is allowed take part in the planned power-sharing governing executive.
Mallon had earlier warned that an absolutist position on decommissioning by unionists would lead to serious problems. Those problems now appear very real even as Clinton prepares to enter the fray once again.
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Clinton is expected to become centrally involved in the North’s tangled political weave over the next couple of weeks as Irish and British politicians cross the Atlantic for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Washington and other U.S. cities.
In San Francisco last week, Clinton outlined foreign policy goals for the last two years of his presidency. Before a group of business and policy leaders, and with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright by his side, Clinton emphasized the need for America to assist in the pursuit for peace around the world and in Northern Ireland.
"I am proud of the work we have done to support peace in Northern Ireland," he said. "We will keep pressing the leaders there to observe not just the letter, but the spirit, of the Good Friday accord."
These comments echoed a speech the president gave at a dinner in Washington earlier this year with the use of the word "pressing" an indicator that the administration has increased the pressure on the parties to find compromise.
Officials here have started to draw up a plan for getting around the issue that has retarded the process since the Good Friday accord was agreed to just less than a year ago.
"We are working steadily on how to achieve an understanding on decommissioning," a White House official said.
The triad of Dublin, London and Washington are working closely this week in developing the choreography of how to dance around decommissioning and still get the new government in Northern Ireland up and running with Sinn Féin included.
Irish, British and American officials agreed on some main points. Most said the March 10 deadline for the new government would not be met and that the parties would come to Washington to work out their differences.
"No one believes that David Trimble would be able to go into government with Sinn Féin and survive politically for more than a day or two," said a British official. Irish and American government officials concurred.
A scenario has been similarly described by several officials that puts Trimble activating the governing Executive, Sinn Féin included, and then a "large boom goes off" or a cache of weapons is "discovered" hours after the government is formed.
"That’s the only way he could survive," one British official said on background.
The No. 2 British official for Northern Ireland, Paul Murphy, came to Washington Tuesday and offered some comments on decommissioning.
"It would help enormously," he told reporters at the British embassy following his meeting at the White House, "for the IRA to issue some statement on what timetable there might be for decommissioning."
As to whether a statement from the IRA, or by Sinn Féin on behalf of the IRA, would be sufficient to allow Trimble to sit in government with Sinn Féin, Murphy would not say. He stressed the difficulties both political leaders of the UUP and Sinn Féin have — with Trimble going into government with Sinn Féin and Gerry Adams facing potential splits over decommissioning.
Of his meeting with National Security Council staff earlier in the day, Murphy said the White House is aware of the possibility that the parties will not be able to overcome hurdles to allow the government to be formed by March 10, and that the focus would then shift here when North leaders come for St. Patrick’s Day festivities.
SDLP leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume is but one of the expected Northern leaders.
Hume will give a speech at the National Archives on March 15, attend the American Ireland Fund dinner on March 16 and then the White House on the 17th.
After most of the politicians have taken flight, Hume will continue his quest for peace. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives have organized a retreat to try to heal the wounds inflicted during the Clinton impeachment proceedings. The congressional members will go to the sweet spot of Hershey, Pa., on March 19 where Hume will be the opening speaker. Organizers expect over 100 members of Congress to attend.
— Anne Cadwallader in Belfast contributed to this story