It's Deją Vu All Over Again

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"Now we have no chicken and no egg." That, according to Mark Durkan, sums up the nebulous state of the Irish peace process. Durkan is--or was--a leading member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in the Ulster Assembly, until that body was dissolved two weeks ago. Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson suspended the fledgling Assembly to forestall a walkout by Ulster Unionists, who refused to continue to sit in government with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, while the I.R.A. still refuses to give up its weapons. But in the sad, vicious circle of recrimination that has too often been Ulster's politics, the I.R.A. retaliated. It severed contacts with the international monitors who are supposed to oversee paramilitary disarmament and withdrew its previous offers of how it might disarm. These moves were not unexpected, but they plunged the peace process into deep gloom.

Moreover, Sinn Fein refuses for now to join a review the British and Irish governments hoped might break the impasse. "I don't think we can play a constructive role on the arms issue when all we are met with is rejection and rebuttal," said Sinn Fein's furious and politically weakened leader Gerry Adams. There was, in fact, so little left to say that David Trimble flew to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, on an ironic mission: to speak at a forum honoring the Nobel Prize he and John Hume, head of the SDLP, won in 1998. The forum's subject: Striving for Peace: Risk and Reconciliation.

Many observers fear it may take a year or more to return the Northern Ireland assembly to life. The forward momentum needed to induce republican and unionist moderates to take risks together has vanished. In fact the moderates are now weaker, with less room to maneuver, even as the gap between republicans and unionists has grown. Trimble was able to persuade 58% of his party's council to join the government last November only by arguing that I.R.A. decommissioning would follow by February. "Over to you, Mr. Adams," he said. "We jumped. You follow." But the I.R.A. didn't jump nearly as far as Trimble needed them to, which has discredited his judgment and made him more jaundiced too. "Fool a man once, shame on you," he told a colleague recently. "Fool a man twice, shame on him."

More importantly, the I.R.A.'s stonewalling has emboldened the anti-agreement forces in his party. "They have ring-fenced Trimble," says Eamon Phoenix, a historian at Stranmillis University College, Belfast. A special committee must now approve the positions Trimble takes in any peace process review. He must also obtain the party council's permission to re-enter the executive if Mandelson revives it.

Adams, who looked weary and fed up this week, has internal problems of his own. According to British sources, he persuaded the I.R.A. brigades in Belfast and Derry to join in decommissioning, but not their more purist colleagues in east Tyrone and south Armagh. Now he has even less to work with to persuade them, since there are no longer Sinn Fein ministers in Belfast to prove that the bad old days are over. Indeed Mandelson, by suspending a vigorous cross-party government without any republican violation of the Good Friday agreement--and while republican guns are silent--simply to save Trimble's position in his own party, has behaved in a way that is almost a caricature of the pro-unionist bias republicans expect of British politicians.

Adams heaped scorn on Mandelson for reimposing direct rule, which makes sense as a way of deflecting criticism of his leadership onto the familiar British enemy. But rhetoric aside, his strategy is stymied, and not just in Ulster. In the Irish Republic, where Sinn Fein has been a growing force and stood a decent chance of joining a coalition government after the next election, 86% of voters want the I.R.A. to decommission and may blame Sinn Fein for failing to deliver. Harder still, the decommissioning bar has been raised. Last month Trimble might have been willing to buy an I.R.A. promise to put its weapons beyond use, coupled with a timetable certified by the international monitors. Now he almost certainly will demand to see proof that actual weapons have been destroyed before he tries to persuade his party to let him re-enter government. For their part, republicans refuse to countenance any decommissioning before the government has been restored. All in all, Adams is said to think the future is very, very bleak.

At the center of this storm is Peter Mandelson, who has come under heavy fire in the last two weeks. The Irish government thought he froze the Ulster Assembly too soon, before seeing whether a conditional, last-minute I.R.A. offer on arms--one that the international monitors found "valuable"--could be coaxed into something substantial. The rift was hastily patched up in public but persists in private. Some nationalist politicians find Mandelson too cocky for such a newcomer to Ulster politics, and not a very good listener. "He sometimes gives the impression in Northern Ireland that he regards himself as an intellectual Gulliver in a political Lilliput," says the SDLP's Durkan. But Mandelson professes no regrets.

Sitting in a stuffed yellow chair in his London office last week, with a large modern painting behind him on one wall and a newspaper photo of him nuzzling his golden retriever Bobby on another, he agreed that "we are in a difficult period. But just to state the obvious, if I had not done as I did, we would not have any institutions worth speaking of to revive. Trimble would have resigned, and if he hadn't resigned, he would have been sacked. His council meeting was grim, grim, and that was after suspension. And both traditions must be in the executive or it doesn't work."

Without quite saying how, Mandelson predicts progress in two or three weeks. Lots of ideas are circulating for how to jumpstart negotiations: a meeting of the Ulster parties without the British or Irish governments; a direct meeting between the British government and the I.R.A., which intrigues British officials but not Sinn Fein; even some kind of confab next month at the White House when Bill Clinton hosts his last St. Patrick's Day party. In the longer run it seems inevitable that Mandelson will dismantle some of the British army's watchtowers and barracks in Ulster to sweeten the pot for republicans. But the current vacuum must be filled quickly. On a snowy hill in Tyrone last week, a former I.R.A. man said a slide to violence "could happen easier than you think. All it takes is for someone to get killed, then there's a funeral, then the blood's up ..."

Many senior republicans doubt the I.R.A. has the will to return to bombing and sniping. Its war machine is rusting, they say, the organization is probably riddled with British informers, and violence is no longer appealing because it will accomplish nothing. But when, in the history of the Troubles, has bloodshed been rational?

With reporting by Chris Thornton/Belfast