Dinner with George

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In the tortuous struggle to bring peace to Northern Ireland, it may turn out that the beginning of the end was pegged to a peculiar dinner party last month. For the previous two weeks, most of Ulster's political parties had been squabbling in Belfast, sitting across a narrow table in a modern drab office building, under the patient guidance of George Mitchell. "The meetings were very harsh, filled with recriminations," the former U.S. Senator recalls. "They would say, 'I don't believe you. You're wrong.' They were pointing their fingers in each other's faces. They were directly calling each other liars."

The parties carried their fights into the newspapers, prompting fresh rounds of sharp words the next morning. Mitchell decided a change of scene was vital. So the talks moved to the secluded home of Philip Lader, the American ambassador in London. To avoid the formality of a conference table, Mitchell placed everyone in comfortable chairs. There was a news blackout. And at the end of the first day's talks, when the participants thought they were about to be released for the evening, Mitchell told them to come back for dinner at 8 p.m.

"It was surreal," recalls one of the participants. Into the ambassador's sumptuous dining room filed some 20 people who on Good Friday last year had signed up to make peace and run an elaborately balanced government together. But the deal foundered last March, and the two bitterest opponents among the pro-agreement parties--the Ulster Unionists, led by David Trimble, and Sinn Fein, led by Gerry Adams--had only recently started talking face to face. The two leaders hardly knew each other and had no mutual trust. Mitchell told everyone to sit where they pleased--and that no business could be discussed. Slowly, the ice began to break. They talked about fishing, their families, opera. "It got to be--not friendly, but an acceptable atmosphere," says Mitchell.

The next day, the working discussions were more productive. Two weeks later the group moved back to Belfast for intense negotiations, Mitchell patiently listening until the U.U.P. and Sinn Fein talked themselves out, lowering the volume through his own unflappability. And last week, they reached a breakthrough that holds out the best hope so far that a democratically elected government and a life without bombs and beatings can take root in Northern Ireland.

There was no triumphal ceremony to mark the achievement, just a press conference where Mitchell announced that his review of the Good Friday agreement was successfully completed and then flew to New York. Instead of splash, the parties opted for substance: a series of elaborately choreographed, mutually reinforcing formal statements and acts unfolding over several days aimed at building confidence and momentum for a quick start to the power-sharing government originally promised in the Good Friday agreement. Kate Fearon, political advisor to the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, likened it to "a zipper closing, tooth by tooth."

The approach was cautious because the whole garment may still unravel. The Ulster Unionists are now deeply split over whether to endorse Mitchell's deal. Trimble pledged in his last campaign never to go into a government with Sinn Fein until the Irish Republican Army, to which Sinn Fein is intimately bound, had "decommissioned"--given up its Semtex and machine guns to an international monitor. His party has been wedded to the "no guns, no government" policy. That's why it blocked the start of the power-sharing executive called for in the Good Friday agreement.

The key to last week's advance was a gamble by Trimble to drop that hard line and inaugurate the government before the I.R.A. hands over any weapons. But his party's ruling council meets this Saturday, and Trimble will be out of a job and the deal will collapse unless he can persuade the 860 delegates that they can trust the I.R.A. to decommission soon--or at least accept that there is no good alternative path to peace. Instead of a pile of I.R.A. guns, Trimble must sell the agreement by pointing to a pile of words. A Sinn Fein statement said the party wants "to work with, not against the unionists," regrets past violence and "accepts that decommissioning is an essential part of the peace process."

In fact Trimble and the other parties' negotiators edited the text before it was released, as the Sinn Fein negotiators did with a reciprocal U.U.P. statement regretting past violence and pledging "mutual respect and tolerance." That both sides used almost identical words shows how much the leaders' mutual trust has grown. More problematic for Trimble was a statement from the I.R.A. It endorsed the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement and the political leadership of Sinn Fein. But it made no direct promise to give up guns. It would only promise to appoint a representative to the international decommissioning body after the new government is set up.

That wasn't enough progress for Arlene Foster, a U.U.P. party official who plans to vote against the deal. "The issue isn't power sharing with Catholics, it's power sharing with terrorists," she says. But about two-thirds of the 27 U.U.P. members in the Northern Ireland Assembly appear to back Trimble, who needs roughly the same level of support from the party council.

His biggest ally may be a general fatigue with 30 years of fighting. Northern Ireland now has the lowest unemployment rate in decades and higher growth than mainland Britain, with big shopping malls opening in city centers that used to be ghost towns at night. Economists predict a lot more foreign investment if the Troubles can be brought to a definitive end.

Sinn Fein no longer talks about throwing the British out of Ulster but instead of "ending injustice and inequality" and "proving the efficacy of politics" in collaboration with unionists. The gunmen on both sides have become middle-aged and have all but stopped using whatever weapons they have stockpiled. Anti-agreement Protestants may be repulsed by having to cohabit with Gerry Adams, but they offer no other path to peace. As Mitchell said, "Even the dogs on the street know there will be no possibility of decommissioning, if Mr. Trimble is rejected and this process fails."

Trimble promises a "short but momentous campaign" to win support. If he prevails, the new government will be set up two days later and all the paramilitaries on both sides will be expected to start working with the decommissioning body right away. How long before they actually hand over weapons is anybody's guess, but meanwhile all the contending parties will be forced to collaborate on budgets, hospitals, farm policy--all the normal boring business of workaday government.

Mitchell does not plan to return. "It's better for them to resolve their issues themselves," he says. He especially wants to spend some time with his 2-year-old son Andrew, who may someday be proud to learn he played a small role in his father's work. Several times the 66-year-old Mitchell showed Andrew's picture around the negotiation table, saying he wanted the 61 children born in Northern Ireland every day to have the same opportunities for a normal life as his own little boy.