Former US Sen. George Mitchell returns to Belfast next week in a bid to prevent the Northern Ireland peace process from coming apart at the seams.
The softspoken but firm Mr. Mitchell will lead a review of last year's Good Friday peace agreement, which he played a crucial part in brokering. The aim is to halt a renewed drift to violence by pro-British Protestant and pro-Irish Catholic paramilitaries, and to persuade the two communities to begin cooperating in the province's elected assembly.
"The peace process is mired in mistrust on both sides of the sectarian divide," says a British government official, who declined to be identified. "It will need somebody of Mr. Mitchell's political calibre and neutrality to find a way forward."
The future role of the Northern Ireland police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, will be "part of the tangle [Mitchell] has to unravel," the official adds.
A special commission headed by the former British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, is expected to deliver a report on the RUC in two weeks. The 92 percent Protestant force, in a society where Catholics make up 42 percent of the population, is widely seen as requiring urgent attention.
Mitchell is returning to Northern Ireland in an atmosphere described by Belfast-based political analyst Paul Bew as "bleak and combustible."
"Mitchell knows that Protestant political leaders are unwilling to accept the good faith of Sinn Fein [the political ally of the Irish Republican Army]," says Mr. Bew. "They are also attacking [Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary] Mo Mowlam for having refused to acknowledge that republican paramilitaries have breached the cease-fire."
Last week Ms. Mowlam, the top British official in the province, judged that the cease-fire was "still intact" despite several violent incidents and the discovery of an alleged plot to send arms to the IRA from the United States.
Mowlam's decision enraged David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, Northern Ireland's main Protestant political party and first minister-designate in a devolved Belfast government. Mr. Trimble and his senior lieutenants have called for her to be fired. Trimble also launched a bitter attack on the Patten commission after a leaked report indicated it would recommend allowing active IRA members to join the RUC police force.
Mitchell's main contribution to the peace process has been to insist that the issue of decommissioning terrorist arms must be addressed in parallel with talks on future political structures in Northern Ireland. But he still has to find a formula that will satisfy Unionists for the IRA to begin handing in its weapons and explosives.
Trimble and other Protestant leaders say the IRA must agree to decommission before Sinn Fein is allowed to join a devolved Belfast government. Sinn Fein says that wasn't part of the 1998 peace accord.
MOST worrying for Mitchell has been the recent outcry over IRA tactics that makes a solution to the problem of law and order all the more important. Six Catholic youths are in hiding in Britain after being threatened with violence, even death, if they remained in Northern Ireland.
The IRA is known to use threats and so called "punishment beatings" to maintain law and order in areas under its control, where RUC forces dare not tread.
The youths have been targeted, the RUC says, because of their refusal to accept the authority of sectarian paramilitaries in the areas where they live. Vincent McKenna, spokesman for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Bureau, says, "The IRA thinks it has the right to police its own areas, and it is determined to punish anyone critical of the political direction of the Sinn Fein leadership."
Mr. McKenna says that since the Belfast agreement was signed 16 months ago, 757 young people have been "exiled" by the IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups.
Mowlam reportedly says that if the Patten commission can come up with a blueprint for the police that gives Catholics a larger role in legitimate law enforcement, the scope for policing by paramilitary groups will be reduced.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society