America to the rescue (again) in N. Ireland?

A Clinton boost may be needed to break deadlock on arms handover byMarch 10.

As the Senate prepares for a vote by the end of this week in President Clinton's impeachment trial, the US leader may have new urgent business to attend to.

Dublin is urging London to consider joining with it to ask Mr. Clinton to intervene once again in Northern Ireland.

The suggestion that the president and former US Senator George Mitchell should be invited to try to save the troubled peace process from threatened collapse came Feb. 8 from Mary Harney, the Irish deputy prime minister.

Speaking in Australia to a meeting of Irish migrants, she said Mr. Mitchell "could be trusted by everybody," adding, "We have to call on those that have had the capacity in the past to resolve difficulties."

Mitchell played a key role in producing last year's Belfast peace agreement. The president visited Northern Ireland twice to boost the peace process.

Now, however, there is deepening deadlock in Northern Ireland over the issue of decommissioning terrorist arms.

The Irish Republican Army is refusing to hand over weapons and bombmaking materials, despite public opinion polls that suggest a majority of its supporters want it to do so.

Chief Minister-designate David Trimble, leader of the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party, the largest pro-British party in Northern Ireland, is insisting that the IRA must begin decommissioning before its political wing, Sinn Fein, can be allowed to join a power-sharing devolved government in Belfast.

The deadlock is causing officials in London and Dublin to voice fears that a March 10 deadline for the devolved government to start work will be missed. This prospect has persuaded Dublin that a fresh US initiative involving President Clinton may be needed.

David McKittrick, a longtime observer of Northern Ireland politics, says that "only a highly intensive negotiation will sort things out, and a political pressure cooker is therefore under construction."

It may take a while for the pressure cooker to end up on the stove.

Intensive talks under way

This week Mo Mowlam, Britain's most senior minister in Northern Ireland, is holding intensive negotiations with the province's main parties. On Feb. 8 she said she would be "reluctant" to involve the Clinton administration once more. But her officials freely concede that the peace process is in trouble, and Ms. Mowlam appeared at pains to avoid ruling out renewed American intervention.

Mowlam at the weekend said the deadline was "not written in stone." But it appears obvious that missing it would be a setback for the peace timetable that calls for complete resolution of the Northern Ireland crisis by May of next year.

Mr. Trimble and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams have both indicated that they do not favor further US involvement at this stage. They are currently reported to be pinning their hopes on Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, head of an international task force on decommissioning, to produce an acceptable formula for the surrender or destruction of arms and explosives before March 10.

On Feb. 15, the Northern Ireland assembly elected last year is scheduled to debate arms decommissioning. If their public comments are anything to go by, Trimble and Mr. Adams will hold to their entrenched positions.

In Brussels last weekend, Trimble said the demand for disarmament was "explicit in the Belfast agreement." To give in on decommissioning would be "tantamount to giving in to the threat of violence" and would "fatally undermine the agreement."

Adams responded that the dispute was not about decommissioning at all, but arose from "an attempt by Trimble to renegotiate the agreement."

Public wants decommissioning

While the wrangling continues, there are unmistakable signs that the public in Northern Ireland is growing impatient with the deadlock and the threat it poses to lasting peace.

An opinion poll published this week in the Belfast Telegraph showed that 84 percent of those questioned wanted arms handed over immediately. Significantly, the poll also indicated that 68 percent of Catholics wanted the paramilitaries to decommission now.

Indications that more than two-thirds of Catholics want rapid action on arms apparently surprised Sinn Fein, whose chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, said the poll was "a distortion" and had "no credibility."

Tensions in Northern Ireland have been heightened since Christmas by an upsurge of political beatings and so-called "knee-cappings" carried out by Protestant and Catholic paramilitary groups.

Last week the IRA admitted that some of its weapons had been stolen by a splinter group. This heightened fears that worse violence may soon occur.

According to London-based police sources, security measures in mainland Britain are being tightened in case of violence by renegade terrorists.

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