A St. Patrick's day breakfast at the White House tomorrow appears likely to determine whether Northern Ireland will stay on the path to peace, or return to sectarian squabbling and terrorist violence.
Sources close to David Trimble, the co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who is set to become first minister of the province, say they expect President Clinton to urge Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to endorse a compromise deal on a credible gesture toward the handover of Irish Republican Army weapons and explosives. Sinn Fein is the political ally of the IRA.
Trimble sources say Adams will be pressed to back the compromise ahead of Good Friday (April 2), the revised deadline set by Britain and Ireland for a breakthrough on decommissioning. It is also the anniversary of last year's widely acclaimed peace agreement, which set up a devolved government in Northern Ireland, among other provisions. Along with several other senior Northern Ireland politicians, Mr. Adams and Mr. Trimble are in the United States to take part in annual St. Patrick's Day festivities.
Tomorrow President Clinton will also present former Sen. George Mitchell, the principal broker of last April's accord, with the Presidential Medal of Honor for his role in the Northern Ireland peace process.
According to London's Sunday Times, the British and Irish governments have asked Mitchell to be available to rescue that process if Mr. Clinton cannot end the impasse over arms.
The compromise Adams will be urged to accept is believed to be the work of Canadian former Gen. John de Chastenay, head of Northern Ireland's arms decommissioning body. General de Chastenay is known to have been working on a range of options, among them a proposal that arms decommissioning should begin at the same time Sinn Fein ministers join a Northern Ireland government.
Until now Trimble, who heads the Ulster Unionist Party, Northern Ireland's largest political party, has refused to agree to Sinn Fein entering a devolved Belfast government until decommissioning begins.
Adams has argued that last Easter's peace accord did not require the IRA to disarm before joining the administration, which will assume powers currently held by Britain.
While Adams comes under pressure to give ground, US officials will urge Trimble to come out in favor of the compromise.
According to a government source in Dublin, Trimble may be pressed to agree to set up a devolved government in Belfast, on a temporary basis. Such a government, the source says, would become permanent only when it is officially confirmed that the IRA has begun handing over or destroying its weapons.
Acceptance of this arrangement would be asking a lot from Trimble, who has a majority of only one vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and has been attacked by some senior supporters for accepting the April 1998 peace deal.
But Trimble and Adams are being made to realize that Clinton is ready once again to play a serious part in forcing the peace process forward, and is impatient for renewed momentum. The president's personal involvement was crucial in hammering out last Easter's agreement.
Originally, Adams was to have attended an Irish-American celebration in Georgia tomorrow, but Sinn Fein officials say he changed his plans at the president's request.
Trimble's supporters say the president's invitation came soon after Adams last Friday told an audience in Houston, Texas, that he doubted whether a compromise on arms could be reached by April 2. Adams said, "What they're looking for is for the IRA to surrender. Unfortunately, that isn't within anybody's gift to deliver because the IRA wasn't defeated."
The impasse on decommissioning has already caused one postponement of London's planned handover of power to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
BERTIE AHERN, the Irish prime minister, will also be in Washington for the St. Patrick's Day celebrations. Last week, Irish government officials say, Mr. Ahern told Adams that the entire peace process could collapse if there was no agreed compromise by the April 2 deadline.
Irish government sources said yesterday that Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair would probably be on hand in Belfast Easter week in case their presence was needed, in the words of the source, "to knock heads together again."
In last April's negotiations Mr. Blair spent many hours inside the granite walls of Belfast's Stormont Castle, drafting and redrafting documents to make them palatable to Trimble and Adams.