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NEWS ANALYSIS

Old Habits Die Hard as N. Ireland Accord Derails

Politics: Despite public sentiment in favor of striking a deal, a history of distrust proves a significant obstacle.

July 16, 1999|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — The clearest sign of how wrong things had gone in Northern Ireland on Thursday was not Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble's boycott of a new power-sharing government.

It was not British Prime Minister Tony Blair's acknowledgment that his plan to break a yearlong deadlock between the province's Protestant unionists and Roman Catholic nationalists had failed.

Nor was it the resignation of the designated deputy first minister, Seamus Mallon, from a post that symbolized change for Northern Ireland's Catholic minority and hope for all trying to end 30 years of sectarian warfare.

Rather, it was the satisfaction--the I-told-you-so tone--in the voice of the Rev. Ian Paisley, chief of the Democratic Unionist Party and one of the most belligerent opponents of last year's Good Friday peace agreement.

"Today has been a good day for Northern Ireland," Paisley bellowed to fellow members of the Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast, the provincial capital.

Few people in Northern Ireland and around the world would agree with Paisley's assessment. By most counts, it was a dark day for Northern Ireland, clouded by its leaders' failure to make history. Instead, they made a mess of the 15-month-old peace process.

The people of Northern Ireland have said repeatedly to pollsters and at the ballot box that they want the Good Friday peace agreement to achieve its goals of bringing about a new cross-community government and disarming paramilitary groups such as the Irish Republican Army.

The politicians were unable to make it happen.

In order to secure the Good Friday agreement, its authors couched the toughest issues in vague language and left them for last. The hope was that Catholic nationalists, who want to see Northern Ireland united with the Irish Republic, and pro-British Protestant unionists would build up enough confidence working together that they eventually would solve the tougher issues.

They did not. Instead, they fell back on a familiar distrust born of decades of hatred and more than 3,500 political killings.

The Catholic nationalists of Sinn Fein were never convinced that Protestants would share power with them, and Protestants never believed that Sinn Fein's allies in the IRA would give up their guns. Neither side wanted to take a risk on the other.

Blair had tried to end the stalemate by proposing to set up the long-delayed Northern Ireland government on Thursday, with Ulster Unionist leader Trimble as first minister and with members of Sinn Fein.

Blair insisted that Sinn Fein had made a "seismic shift" on the issue of disarmament during talks this month, and to win Protestant support he offered legislation to suspend the Northern Ireland executive and Assembly if the IRA failed to turn in its guns on time.

But the Ulster Unionists rejected his plan Wednesday night, holding fast to their "no guns, no government" position on Sinn Fein. The 28 Ulster Unionist members of the Assembly then boycotted Thursday's meeting at the Stormont Parliament in Belfast to nominate the 10 Cabinet ministers who were supposed to form an executive along with Trimble and Mallon.

"It is quite unreasonable to expect us to bring into government an active and fully armed terrorist organization without any commitment by them to act purely in accordance with the democratic process," Trimble said.

Mallon, of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, was incredulous. In tendering his resignation, he lashed out at the Ulster Unionists who he said had "used this crisis to bleed more concessions" from Britain and Ireland.

The result of the Ulster Unionist absence was what several members described as a farcical scene in which Assembly Speaker John Alderdice addressed himself to the party's vacant seats to announce that they had five minutes to nominate ministers, then let the clock run in a silent chamber.

The hard-line Paisley refused to name his party's ministers in protest of Sinn Fein's presence.

Only Mallon's party and Sinn Fein named their ministers--an all-Catholic executive that held office for less than half an hour before orders came from London to adjourn under the terms of the Good Friday accord for lack of Ulster Unionist members.

In the end, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, Marjorie "Mo" Mowlam, announced that the British and Irish governments will meet next week to plan a review of the peace accord. Former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell, who chaired talks that led to the Good Friday agreement, will attend the session, Reuters news agency reported Thursday.

"This is not the end of the agreement," said Paul Bew, an expert in Northern Ireland politics at Queen's University in Belfast. "But it will be difficult to pick up the pieces again."

*

William Graham in Belfast contributed to this report.

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