Northern Ireland Peace Process Falls to Pieces

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It looks like George Mitchell should start packing his bags. The former U.S. senator from Maine, who engineered last year's Good Friday accord aimed at bringing peace in Northern Ireland, saw the agreement in tatters on Thursday when Protestant loyalists pulled up at the last hurdle. Britain on Thursday formally put the peace process under review after David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party refused to take its seats at the head of the new Northern Ireland Assembly created by the agreement. The Unionists rejected London's plan allowing the Republican Sinn Fein to take their seats in the assembly before their IRA allies had begun to disarm. Although the Good Friday plan required the IRA to disarm only by next May, hard-liners in Trimble's party had threatened to mutiny if the party entered the assembly before the IRA had begun turning over its weapons.

The deadlock has sent the peace deal's authors, Britain and the Republic of Ireland, back to the drawing board. Prime Minister Blair and Ireland's Taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahearn will meet next week to ponder a way forward in a peace process that crashed because neither side could muster the trust to take the necessary political risks. The only smiles in Northern Ireland Thursday will be on the faces of the hard men of all stripes who prefer to let their weapons do the negotiating.