WASHINGTON — Just four months ago, the Clinton administration appeared to be on the verge of successfully prodding Northern Ireland into a peace deal.
It was to be a legacy builder for the US president, who had given more effort than any of his predecessors to ending 30 years of sectarian strife in the British province.
But today, as the key leaders in the peace process gather in Washington, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is slowly coming unwound.
The Irish Republican Army (IRA) is balking at giving up its arms. Britain suspended a Protestant/ Catholic home-rule government last month. And David Trimble, the Nobel Prize-winning leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, says he'll resign from the government.
In today's talks - an effort to salvage peace hopes - President Clinton is expected to prod both sides on the core issue of arms: to commence IRA disarmament and a British security-force drawdown.
Although analysts foresee few, if any, tangible results, the Washington talks occur against a backdrop of some positive signs. Unlike previous St. Patrick's Day celebrations in the US, this one will be attended by both Roman Catholics and Protestants. And, despite the suspension of home rule in Northern Ireland, most of the paramilitary groups, including the IRA, have held to a ceasefire.
"I'm going to the States this time very much out of a sense of duty," Gerry Adams, the leader of the IRA's political ally, Sinn Fein, told reporters. "I would rather be here in Belfast celebrating ... St. Patrick's Day."
Still, Mr. Clinton and his envoy, former US Sen. George Mitchell, have accomplished a great deal since they took up the cause in 1994 - starting with the authorization of a visa for Mr. Adams to visit Washington.
Prior to that, the US had stayed removed from the issue, partially at the insistence of political leaders in London. Now, "the attitude [in Northern Ireland] has changed completely," says Peter Reid, a spokesman for the British Embassy here. "They're not thankful for peace any more - they see it as a right."
That attitude, analysts say, stems mainly from both sides tiring of decades of violence. More than 3,600 people have been killed in the province, many in terrorist attacks.
But a renewed thirst for peace can also be chalked up to the patient, can-do attitude Clinton and Mr. Mitchell have brought. Clinton has been popular with both Protestants and Catholics. Mitchell has been hailed by both sides for his objectivity.
Most prominently, Clinton has played the role of fall guy, allowing leaders on either side to justify their compromises by telling supporters that "the US made us do it."
"Clinton still has a high, almost heroic stature in Ireland and Northern Ireland," says Joseph Montville of the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.
A Clinton trademark - also used in Cyprus and the Mideast - has been to build trust bit by bit, starting with pleasant meetings and building up to substantial discussions.
Critics say this approach is doomed to fail in the end. "It's proving not to work," says John Hulsman, who follows Irish issues at the Heritage Foundation here. "In the end it just builds up false hope." He faults Clinton for delaying the thorniest of the issues: getting paramilitary groups to disarm.
Now, with Clinton's term running down and Mitchell saying his work is finished in Northern Ireland, analysts doubt if the US will maintain a central role in the region. Among presidential candidates, Mr. Hulsman says it is hard to imagine Texas Gov. George W. Bush as a peacebroker, while Vice President Al Gore could one day pick up the topic.
"Clinton could be useful in the future," after he leaves office, Hulsman says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society