By Anne Cadwallader
STORMONT — The gloomiest assessment yet for the Good Friday peace agreement’s chances of successfully resolving the crisis in Northern Ireland was made by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell in Dublin on Tuesday.
Mitchell, who is usually doggedly optimistic, admitted the process was "under great stress" and that "without exaggeration" it was fair to say there was no guarantee of it working out.
Speaking at a conference of bankers in Dublin, Mitchell said the result of such a failure would be entirely unpredictable. He said there was no credible alternative to the agreement, and if it is not implemented, the people of Northern Ireland would face an uncertain future.
"I think it is not an exaggeration that the process is now under great stress and there is a real threat of it not proceeding," Mitchell said.
"The danger is that if they fail and we in this review are unable to come up with a mechanism for going forward, that the results are wholly unpredictable and could be very negative. No one can say for sure what will happen."
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The senator said he shared the view of the Irish and British prime ministers and political leaders supporting the peace process in Northern Ireland that no credible alternative has been presented.
"The agreement represents the best hope in a long time and if it isn’t implemented, I think that the people there face a highly uncertain future," Mitchell said.
"I believe it can be done, but I am not in a position to conclude that the result is assured. It is certainly not assured as of this moment," Mitchell said before leaving for the U.S. for a week. He will return next Tuesday for more intensive talks at Stormont.
Last week, the Echo reported that Mitchell was planning to terminate his review of the Good Friday accord in mid-October unless there was a political breakthrough. His latest statements merely underline the air of crisis now enveloping the peace process.
Privately, most politicians now accept there is little chance of breaking the impasse in advance of this weekend’s Ulster Unionist Party conference, where hardliners are hoping to copperfasten its "no guns, no government" stand.
A small number of more liberal members of the UUP believe that its leader, David Trimble, should moderate this policy by setting up a power-sharing Executive with Sinn Féin, in return for private assurances that decommissioning will take place a short time later.
But opinions vary deeply on Trimble’s real intentions. On one hand, he gave a press conference last week strongly condemning loyalist violence against Catholics, and he trenchantly defended the Good Friday agreement at a Young Unionist meeting on Saturday
Sinn Féin, however, believes that Trimble is using his hard-line in a long-term bid to destroy the agreement. The party says his real strategy is to try to renegotiate it, and accuse him of elevating his own status as leader and the need for party unity over the commitment he gave to the agreement on April 10 last year.
Even should Trimble truly want the agreement to work, those opposed to this (including most of the party’s MPs and some in his Assembly party), are determined to hold the line and make a stand at this weekend’s conference in Enniskillen.
At the Young Unionist conference in Bangor on Saturday, former party leader Lord James Molyneaux said the agreement was "weird" and could sound the death knell for unionism. He said the UUP could not trust its Assembly party to support the traditional pledge to uphold the union as they were bound to cooperate with parties intent on destroying it.
Response to Mitchell
On the wider political front, there was a varying response in Northern Ireland to Mitchell’s downbeat prognosis in Dublin , although all politicians agreed with his assessment.
Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin said Mitchell had been realistic. "We have a responsibility, however," he said, "to engage with him to break the impasse and establish the institutions. The Mitchell Review can only be successful if it establishes the institutions agreed in the Goof Friday agreement."
On decommissioning, McGuinness said the agreement had dealt with that comprehensively, by giving responsibility over to General John de Chastelain and his International Commission, who should be allowed to do their job. It was time, said McGuinness, for the unionists to "end their boycott of the institutions agreed last year."
Nigel Dodds, the chief whip of the Democratic Unionist Party said, however, that it was interesting that Mitchell had given his most frank assessment to date to a "group of U.S. bankers in Dublin" rather than to the people of Northern Ireland themselves.
The Mitchell Review was bound to fail, said Dodds, because even if the senator engineering a fudge on decommissioning, he still would not have addressed the fundamental problem, which was that the agreement no longer had the support of the vast majority of unionists.
Everybody now accepts, said Dodds, that many unionists who had voted "Yes" last year have had their faith shattered. He said it was up to the RUC and British Army to take weapons from the IRA.
Disarming terrorists should not be subject to a bartering process whereby republicans were allowed into government in return for a token hand over of guns, said Dodds, pledging that "under no circumstances will Sinn Féin/IRA get into government while maintaining the main part of their military machine intact."
Seamus Mallon of the SDLP said things looked "pretty grim" but warned: "We shouldn’t lose hope or translate George Mitchell’s realism into pessimism. The process has been in crisis since July 15, when the Executive was not set up as planned and people’s hopes were dashed.
"There are grave difficulties within the Ulster Unionist party and also within the nationalist community. However difficult the agreement is, the alternative is a thousand times worse. It may be that staring into the abyss is enough to persuade people to draw back and take the steps needed to save the agreement."
The hardline Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson, speaking from the British Conservative Party conference in England, said it was time for "an injection of political reality."
"There are alternative ways of moving forward if republicans are not prepared to live up to their commitments to peace and democracy," he said. "It’s not a matter of me taking pleasure in saying this, it is a matter of political reality.
"If republicans are not prepared to keep their side of the bargain, then we will have to move on without them. What ought to happen is that the political parties who are committed to peace get together and find a way forward based on the Assembly we have and excluding those who are not prepared to leave violence or the threat of violence behind."
The latest round of talks between Trimble and the Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams concluded on Monday after only 45 minutes. Trimble said nothing as the parties left but Adams said his party had been there for serious negotiations.
Writing in the Irish Times, Adams said the peace process is in danger of dying of inertia. "One and a half years after Good Friday ’98, the political institutions, the foundation stone of most other possibilities, has not been laid," he wrote.
Adams also accused the UUP of using the issue of weapons decommissioning to prevent the accord being implemented. "Their position of ‘no guns, no government’ runs totally contrary to the agreement," he said.
He warned that any attempt to exclude Sinn Féin from the power-sharing executive would be unacceptable and that Mitchell’s review of the peace process was the best opportunity to rid Northern Ireland of conflict.
"If we fail, it will be a huge failure, bigger and greater than any of the political leaders involved," he said. Addressing the second annual conference of Ogra Sinn Féin in Dublin, Adams accused the Ulster Unionist party of engaging in a high risk strategy, aimed at preventing the establishment of the Executive and the interlocking all-Ireland structures.
After his first meeting with Adams last week, Trimble appealed to all paramilitary groups to make a commitment to decommission their weapons in order to save the peace process. He also accused Sinn Féin of failing to give a "sensible response" to the impasse over IRA decommissioning.
Trimble denounced Sinn Féin, who he said had been "evasive" in responding to his demands for an IRA weapons hand-over. He said he would join in forming the North’s planned power-sharing Executive if the weapons were forthcoming. "We would seek at least that sort of precision from the republican movement," he said. "We have not yet got it."
Adams said in response that republicans recognized how the issue of IRA weapons decommissioning presented a problem to some elements within unionism but all sections of unionism, including Trimble, knew that it was not a precondition to the implementation of the agreement.