Gerry Adams usually starts his press conferences with some sentences in Irish. But last week even English-speaking reporters could still grasp a few words: "Lį Groundhog"--the movie Groundhog Day, in which the hero is condemned to relive a miserable 24 hours over and over again--and "deją vu." The Sinn Fein president was trying to downplay the crisis gripping the Ulster peace process as a bump in the road, like hundreds before, that could be surmounted if the other parties kept their nerve--and kept talking. He was only half-right: the parties are still talking, which averts for now the total collapse of the Good Friday agreement. But the agonizingly secured and still precarious peace in Ulster remains poised on the edge of failure, and it is the republicans whom Adams leads who must break the pattern of mistrust to solve it, not with words but deeds.
The core problem is whether and how fast the Irish Republican Army is going to give up its guns and plastic explosives. Decommissioning has been a central issue for years. But now David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists and First Minister of the province's fledgling government, is insisting that its resolution be postponed no longer. Last November he promised to quit unless the I.R.A. satisfied international monitors by Jan. 31 that it was starting to decommission. He sealed his promise by signing a resignation postdated for Feb. 4, and scheduling a meeting of the party's 860-member ruling council for Feb. 12. Even with these safeguards in place he got only 58% of the council to back his gamble of joining a government with Sinn Fein before the I.R.A. gave up its guns.
His gamble has failed. The I.R.A.'s representative to the international decommissioning monitors, led by Canadian General John de Chastelain, talked to them only three times. He never discussed what weapons the I.R.A. would turn over, or how, or when. De Chastelain issued such a gloomy report last week that even after British and Irish officials had massaged the text, Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson, refused to release it. But he is desperate to keep Trimble from quitting. That would crush the delicate balance of Ulster's enforced coalition government, ensuring that Trimble would never be re-elected and embittering both unionists and nationalists for a long time to come.
On the eve of Trimble's resignation, Mandelson averted complete collapse by uncorking a bill, due to become law this week, that will give him authority to put the whole Ulster government in a kind of deep freeze by temporarily suspending its powers. Though risky, a suspension would give Trimble an honorable alternative to resignation and provide some clarity about the future of Northern Ireland's institutions, which so far have worked remarkably well. More importantly, Mandelson's announcement kept Trimble in his job and bought another week to armtwist the I.R.A. over its weapons.
Compromise doesn't look likely. Adams, who was meeting I.R.A. leaders when Mandelson announced his suspension contingency plan, called it "disgraceful." Sinn Fein chairman Mitchell McLaughlin said he "doubt[ed] very much" whether a decommissioning deal could be cut this week. They rightly argue that the Good Friday agreement does not require decommissioning until May, and that Trimble's promise to resign over it now, and Mandelson's suspension option, both deviate from its terms. The pressure from Trimble and Mandelson clearly complicates Sinn Fein's task of selling decommissioning to the i.r.a's hard men as a voluntary gesture they can make from a position of strength, rather than a humiliation extracted by the enemy. Sinn Fein officials argue that the long silence of the I.R.A.'s bombs, and its promise repeated last week to keep them silent, are proof enough of republicans' commitment to peace.
But even traditional republican allies are losing patience and say that the failure to offer even a tiny gesture to ease unionist anxieties implies that Adams either can't deliver the I.R.A. or was never serious about wanting to in the first place. Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the largest nationalist grouping, pointedly said there was "no excuse whatsoever" for I.R.A. recalcitrance. Editorials in U.S. newspapers normally sympathetic to republicans took a tough line, and U.S. President Bill Clinton, always studiously neutral, edged toward direct criticism of the I.R.A.
Both British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern, who met at an emergency summit, talked about wanting "clarity" from the I.R.A. That implies they may still be satisfied by a promise to General de Chastelain to start handing over weapons by a specific date. Adams will meet Trimble this week to talk things over, and Mandelson may be able to sweeten the pot in the medium term with some ostentatious cutbacks in British troops and barracks in Ulster. The I.R.A. is unlikely ever to disarm ostentatiously. But to keep the peace process from dissolving, it must finally disarm visibly.