Clinton's swan song: one more try for N. Ireland

The US leader, who played a crucial role in the peace process, returns Dec. 12-14.

On what is most likely his final foreign trip as US president, Bill Clinton today begins a visit to Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Britain, where he is expected to try to break one of the most intransigent stalemates in Europe.

Mr. Clinton will confront a tangle of disagreements that analysts say could still derail the peace process, which has been one of Clinton's major foreign-policy commitments. These include:

* The long-delayed decommissioning of both Protestant and Catholic paramilitaries.

* The future of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland's heavily Protestant police force, which British Prime Minister Tony Blair has sworn to reform.

* Demands by Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political ally, to greatly reduce the number of British troops in Northern Ireland.

* Political relations between the governments in Belfast and Dublin. David Trimble, first minister in Northern Ireland's self-rule government, currently refuses to let his ministers join in cross-border talks.

* Sporadic violence by Protestant and Catholic groups opposed to the peace process.

Senior British officials appear to have only modest hopes for the Clinton visit. One told the Monitor: "At the very least, we would like to see him push the peace process ahead. His presence hopefully will remind all concerned of what stands to be lost."

Other reports, however, suggest Mr. Blair may be looking for more. Last week, the Dublin-based Irish Times reported that "senior British figures" have been pressing for a "concrete act of IRA decommissioning." The report said this could be taken quite literally, by encasing in concrete weapons dumps previously examined by international inspectors. The paper said this would put the arms "permanently beyond use" - echoing an IRA pledge in May.

But many here view Clinton's trip as an opportunity to deal with the "Real IRA." Though believed to have no more than 200 members, this IRA splinter group is considered one of the most dangerous opponents of the 1998 Good Friday peace settlement. It is responsible for a 1998 bombing in the city of Omagh, in which 29 people died.

Leading demands for a crackdown is Mr. Trimble, who is also leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. The mainly Protestant UUP supports British rule. The IRA and its offshoots are Catholic-based and want a united Ireland.

"We want to see what the president has to say ... with regard to the Real IRA, because I think one of the failures by the [British] government over the last few years is the failure to deal with Real IRA," Trimble said on Sunday.

His concern is shared by the London and Dublin governments as well as most political leaders in the province. They see Clinton's third visit as an opportunity to free up the peace process.

Last month, Britain asked the US Congress to impose a ban on the Real IRA. Hopes that Clinton may take this step were encouraged by his scheduled visit to Dundalk. The Irish border town has received millions in US aid, but it is also believed to be used by the Real IRA as a base for cross-border attacks. A source close to Trimble told the Monitor: "If the president were to declare a ban on the Real IRA during his visit to Dundalk, the impact would be considerable.... The Real IRA's activities there are anomalous and a constant threat to the peace process."

Those who worry what Clinton's imminent retirement will mean for the peace process are encouraged by the fact that his wife, Senator-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton, is tagging along. Mrs. Clinton plans to meet women parliamentarians in Dublin and is scheduled to give a speech on the empowerment of women in politics.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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