Breakdown in Belfast

Impasse: IRA refusal to start disarming triggers Unionist intransigence on sharing power.

July 18, 1999

AFTER so many hopes and electoral victories for peace in Northern Ireland, the political breakdown last week renews doubt that the province can reach the tolerance now prevailing in both countries that claim its divided allegiance.

Ireland is not anti-British today, nor Britain anti-Irish. The most positive recent development is the strong trust between the Irish government of Bertie Ahern and British government of Tony Blair. As long as they maintain it, they may be able to salvage the Good Friday accord of last year.

In ambiguous language, that accord calls for disarmament by all paramilitary organizations by May 2000 -- in the context of fulfillment of all its other clauses.

But in the 15 months since then, the IRA, while maintaining its cease-fire, has refused to pledge to disarm or to make a gesture of starting. This caused the Unionist minister of the fledgling provincial government, David Trimble, to deny the IRA's elected partner party, Sinn Fein, seats in a cabinet. The Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), which gets more votes from the Catholic minority than Sinn Fein, refused to take its seats without Sinn Fein. The Unionists refused to start the executive government.

Back to Square One, direct rule from London, on the eve of the planned "devolution" of power to the provincial government. Mr. Blair and Mr. Ahern are scheduled to meet this week to plan their next move. Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who brokered the Good Friday accord, is being dragged back into a similar role on implementation.

Mr. Blair had been saying there was no Plan B. If Unionist intransigence were held to blame, he was rumored ready to invite Dublin to share power with him over the North. That is not in order when IRA intransigence, justifying Protestant community fears, is the stumbling block.

As the Belfast Telegraph editorialized following the debacle: "Giant strides have been made, but it was unrealistic to think a final destination could be reached without a positive response from the men with the weapons who have contributed so much to the political upheavals.

"The pressure must be maintained on them, on both sides of the community, not only to keep to the cease-fires but to respond to the demands of the vast mass of peace-loving people."

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