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Clinton Tells N. Ireland to Resolve Issues

Diplomacy: In Belfast, the president calls on feuding sides to do their part to help a 1998 peace pact take hold.

December 14, 2000|MARJORIE MILLER and ROBERT A. ROSENBLATT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — In his last play as a peacemaker for Northern Ireland, President Clinton on Wednesday urged the province's feuding Protestant and Roman Catholic political parties to break their deadlock and move in step to resolve the outstanding issues of disarmament, policing and demilitarization.

After a day of meetings with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the pro-peace parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Clinton told a rally of about 8,000 residents in Belfast, the provincial capital, that the Irish Republican Army must disarm "fully, finally and forever."

On the other side, he said, the British government and pro-British Protestant parties must follow through on promised reforms to Northern Ireland's overwhelmingly Protestant police force and must reduce the British military presence in the province.

"For the vision of the Good Friday agreement to be fully realized, all sides must be fully engaged with each other, understanding that they must move forward together or not at all," Clinton said.

Although Clinton prodded the leaders in the private meetings and retained his optimism about the prospects for peace, there was no indication that the parties will cooperate with a quick breakthrough. The Good Friday accord in 1998 provided for political power-sharing between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, along with guarantees of equal rights for the Catholic minority.

But the bitter memories of the Troubles, a 30-year span during which more than 3,500 people died in bombings, shootings and other violence, have made the creation of a lasting peace a process of fits and starts.

Clinton and the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly, however, have a significant achievement to their credit. Rather than resorting to violence, people bitterly divided by sectarian differences are talking to one another in a political setting.

Or in this case, in a sparkling new, $135-million hockey center appropriately named the Odyssey Arena. Janice Gault, a spokeswoman for the arena, said it couldn't have been built without the peace process in Northern Ireland.

"This is a nonsectarian building. This is a neutral sport in a neutral area of the city along the river," she said. "I think people are bored of violence. They get used to normal life and don't want anything else."

Life was as normal as it gets in Belfast at the Odyssey center, with Protestant and Catholic students decked out in uniforms of the province's largely segregated schools. The joyous students led a human wave that drew in even Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, the leaders of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing.

Against a backdrop of U2 and Van Morrison music, the support for the peace process was expressed in foot-stomping cheers.

But among the leaders on the speakers platform, there were no illusions about the difficulty of making further progress.

"Controversies and disputes are sapping energy, goodwill and trust," said Seamus Mallon, the Catholic deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. "We cannot go on like this. It is time to stop and think--to measure our actions and our inaction against the imperatives of peace."

All of the progress that has been made is at risk because of an outbreak of sectarian killings last week, he added. "Corrosive violence and the threat of violence persists," he said.

Although the IRA and main Protestant paramilitary groups are observing cease-fires, dissidents on both sides are thought to be responsible for the sporadic violence.

David Trimble, Northern Ireland's Protestant first minister, said he would not "let the ship of peace sink on the rocks of old habits and hard grudges."

He insisted that IRA disarmament remains a top priority. "Again and again we repeat to those who use violence, 'You are the past, your day is over.' "

Clinton said the U.S. will intensify its cooperation with the British and Irish governments in counter-terrorism efforts. The crowd applauded when the president said the three nations will join to "combat groups seeking to undermine the Good Friday accords through violence."

Experts from the countries will meet soon, "and the United States will continue to work in a systematic way to do whatever we can to help to root out terrorism and to make this peace agreement take hold," he said.

The British and Irish governments have asked that Clinton put the dissident republican group opposed to the peace process, the Real IRA, on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, thereby banning it from raising money and support in the United States.

Some political leaders here had hoped that Clinton would announce such a move during this trip, but he stopped short. His spokesman, P. J. Crowley, said determining whether the Real IRA is a terrorist organization is a "legal process" under consideration by the State Department. The study might not be completed before the end of Clinton's term.

Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan of Northern Ireland's Royal Ulster Constabulary said that he and his Irish counterparts had made the recommendation to their respective prime ministers.

Aware that such a move might bring the dissidents additional notoriety, Flanagan said it would, nonetheless, "be very positive to send a signal and to prevent any funding by misguided people in the United States."

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