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Still Divided Northern Ireland's Uneasy Peace

Next few months seen as decisive

By Charles M. Sennott, Globe Staff, 7/6/2003

BELFAST -- For the leaders who forged the Good Friday agreement, the past five years have brought Northern Ireland slow, at times frustrating, but nevertheless significant progress.

But these key players also would agree the current political crisis has left Northern Ireland once again at a fateful crossroad, and the next few months will determine whether Catholics and Protestants find their way forward or revert to violence.

Gerry Adams, head of Sinn Fein, the political party allied with the Irish Republican Army, said in an interview: ''The difficulty is that if you have a process that is not anchored and something does happen, the repercussions are deeper and wider. A very small minority can send back all of the work that has been done. But the most significant element in all of this is that people have embraced the process, or grown into it.

''Even though the process is in a mess at the moment, we are still in a far better place than we were five years ago, and an unimaginable place from where we were 10 years ago,'' Adams said.

David Trimble is the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, which argues that Northern Ireland must remain part of the United Kingdom and whose party members have become bitterly divided over support of the Good Friday agreement. Trimble said of the current status of the peace process, ''The implementation is not complete and it has taken longer than I thought it would.

''Look at a question such as the complete disarmament of all paramilitary groups, which was supposed to be completed by May 2000, and we've only scratched the surface. With the best will in the world, you'd need two years to get that done. You're looking at five to 10 years to get it finished. My view is that the uneven progress we've had over the last five years will continue. It'll be slow, it'll be uneven, it'll be fits and starts with intervals in between,'' Trimble said in an interview.

The two men are at the center of the political storm that has engulfed the Good Friday agreement, leading to the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the cancellation of elections scheduled for May 29.

Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain called off the vote, saying the IRA statement released in April did not live up to his government's expectations that the paramilitary group would make a final, unambiguous declaration that war is over, to disarm, and to put an end to its rough street justice in which its members deliver ''punishment beatings'' to anyone they deem deserving. In other words, Blair wanted the IRA to disband.

Adams said the IRA's April statement was a dramatic breakthrough in which the IRA announced its armed struggle had come to an end. He added that the British government has ''wasted an historic opportunity.''

He cautioned the chance ''will be very difficult to re-create, and I think they [the British government] know that. . . . Things have become polarized.''

The crisis also has left Trimble in a bind that could pull his party apart. Internal party opposition -- led by Jeffrey Donaldson, who adamantly opposes the compromises he feels Trimble has made in the Good Friday agreement -- have called for a revolt. As a result, Trimble has suspended him from the party.

Adams thinks the cancellation of the elections was a stunt by Blair to effectively give Trimble time to head off the rebellion brewing in his party, and that in so doing Blair has undermined the democratic institutions created by the agreement.

Political analysts think that if the elections had taken place Trimble would have lost considerable ground to the Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, which staunchly opposes the Good Friday agreement. Analysts also think Sinn Fein stood to gain considerable political strength in the elections.

All sides are waiting now to see whether Blair will reschedule the elections this fall. Former senator George Mitchell, who presided over the 1998 signing of the Good Friday agreement and the first year of its implementation, said, ''I am concerned right now as I think all who hope for peace in Northern Ireland must be.

''But I suspect they will work their way through this difficulty as they have through others. There is an inevitable tendency when you are working toward something to think you are failing because you aren't there yet. When you haven't reached your goal, you have to try again, keep going. The parties here know what needs to be done; they simply have to do it.''

This story ran on page A13 of the Boston Globe on 7/6/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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