Same old same old

International | In Northern Ireland's IRA-Unionist troubles, power-sharing agreement reverts to squabbling

Issue: "Bush: Crunch time," March 4, 2000

in Belfast - The tentative cheers that greeted the decision of the Ulster Unionist Party last November to share power with nationalist, predominantly Catholic, politicians in Northern Ireland have given way to squabbling and contradiction. Old rows may prove too much for would-be peacemakers coming out of a generation of conflict in a province that has known mostly British control. The celebrated new government was suspended after only 72 days. And like the old days, politicians are once again flinging accusations at each other down the halls of the parliament buildings and over television screens. Both British and Irish governments want to resuscitate the ailing peace process, but a disillusioned public sees only conflict as usual. The dark shadow over once-bright prospects for peace: the IRA's continuing reluctance to give up its weapons. On Feb. 11, British Secretary of State Peter Mandelson suspended both the executive and parliamentary branches of the new government. That came after a Dec. 10, 1999, report by an independent commission showed no progress toward decommissioning weapons. It sparked the most serious in a succession of political crises since the Good Friday Agreement, a peace plan agreed to in April 1998, that established interlocking government among Ireland, Great Britain, and Northern Ireland. Last November, according to the Good Friday plan, a 108-member assembly at Stormont, the parliamentary site until 1972, took seats with Protestants and Catholics sharing power. Now the arrangement is comatose, and power has been returned to the British government. With the stakes higher than ever-for the first time in over 20 years the province was moving toward some kind of political normalcy and self-sufficiency-Northern Irish are reluctant to give up their new independence. They have now elected their own politicians, rather than depending on the British central government to decide for them. Unionist (pro-British) and nationalist (pro-Irish) factions are blaming each other for their parliament's collapse. At the same time, British and Irish governments cannot agree on a timetable for a possible restoration of the Northern Irish Assembly, the province's new lawmaking body. Claiming that the Unionists are trying to control both them and the process, the Irish Republican Army pulled out of discussions in reaction to the suspension. But the IRA and its political cohort, Sinn Fein, are holding more cards than they will admit. The IRA's failure to show any sign that it has begun to give up its vast arsenal of weapons, as required under the agreement, was the catalyst for the power-sharing government's breakdown. Those weapons were built up over decades of bartering with the United States, Eastern Europe, and Libya. The arsenal includes everything from handguns and AK-47s to rocket launchers, along with an estimated 1-2 tons of semtex, a hard-to-detect plastic explosive. While decommissioning these weapons is a key requirement of the Good Friday Agreement and the Mitchell Report, on which both Northern Ireland's assembly and executive council were based, as yet, no one knows how that process will work. The IRA, which is supposed to complete handing over weapons by May, now maintains that a ceasefire is sufficient proof of its support for politics over violence. It has made no moves to decommission. "I think the people are increasingly frustrated that this issue of decommissioning continues to dog the process," Sinn Fein's chief whip, Alex Maskey, told WORLD. "Nationalists and Republicans see the silence of the IRA guns. The IRA is virtually out of the equation," he added. "There are no grounds for suspension of these institutions." Behind closed doors at Sinn Fein, however, spokesman Ned Cohen let slip that Sinn Fein and the IRA want far more than they have already bargained for. "Sure everybody knows that [decommissioning] will only happen if there's a 32-county republic," a reference to a united Ireland, which is no part of the current agreement. On the unionist front, Ulster Unionist Leader David Trimble is walking his own political tightrope. Those who elected Mr. Trimble to leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) in 1995 saw an anti-Sinn Fein hardliner. Mr. Trimble's attempt to share power with the party was a shock. He agreed to talk politics with Sinn Fein until the IRA handed over their weapons, but went one step further to allow the setting up of the new government in return for decommissioning by May. The more extreme among his constituency are comparing Mr. Trimble's willingness to compromise with nationalists to British appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s. "Unionist people here have swallowed so much that they just can't take any more," said St. Clair McAlister, spokesman for the Democratic Unionists Party (DUP). His party, too, walked out of negotiations in disgust, when the IRA and related groups it viewed as terrorists were accepted into the government. "There has been nothing to date [from the nationalist side]. There has been no decommissioning, there has been no repentance, there has been no saying we're sorry of the situation, it was wrong, we want a completely fresh start, a start that has no illegal guns in it, and a true democracy. We're not seeing that," said Mr. McAlister. For the nationalist side, there is frustration with the slow pace of long-promised reforms. "People were saying, I thought we were going to get equality, we were going to get a better justice system, but none of these things have actually been delivered," said Sinn Fein's spokesman, Mr. Maskey. "We would be very concerned that the atmosphere, that the goodwill and the trust and confidence in this process which with great determination and hard work we've been trying to build up, will be diminished very, very quickly. And then people will turn to me and say, 'We've tried politics and it doesn't work.'" When the last Northern Irish government collapsed in 1974, a decade of the worst violence in the history of the province ensued. The people of Northern Ireland are wary of trusting political parties that they feel have repeatedly sold them out, but the alternative-given the province's bloody past-is also too terrible to contemplate.

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