Britain's controversial choice for Belfast post

Prime Minister Tony Blair's appointment of a new secretary of state for Northern Ireland Oct. 11 comes as hopes are being raised that the faltering peace process can be saved from collapse.

Peter Mandelson replaces longserving troubleshooter Mo Mowlam as the top British official in the province. He immediately declared that if a lasting peace deal is to be achieved, Protestants and Catholics have to learn to work together. "Neither side can do a deal on its own," he said. "They need each other."

A day after his appointment, Mr. Mandelson, Mr. Blair's most trusted, and most controversial, lieutenant - his nickname is "prince of darkness" - flew straight to Belfast. Along with Ms. Mowlam, Mandelson met with leaders of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and with David Trimble, leader of the pro-British Ulster Unionist Party.

They also met former US Sen. George Mitchell who is trying to bridge the gap on the issue that most threatens the peace process: the handover of paramilitary weapons. The Unionists continue to insist that the IRA must begin giving up arms and explosives before Sinn Fein can join a Northern Ireland government, which Mr. Trimble is slated to head.

Sinn Fein maintains that decommissioning was not part of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. Its president, Gerry Adams, has yet to persuade IRA leaders to hand in even a token quantity of weapons.

In a bid to break the deadlock, Mitchell declared Oct. 11 that he was moving the talks to an undisclosed location in England. British government sources said Mitchell had been encouraged by Trimble's refusal, at a weekend meeting with senior members of his party, to give in to pressure to avoid further talks with Sinn Fein.

There are reports in British and Irish newspapers that Trimble may be ready to accept Sinn Fein in a Northern Ireland government, in return for a promise by the IRA to decommission arms in the near future.

Leaders of Northern Ireland's Protestant community generally welcomed Mandelson's appointment, but moderate and radical Catholic spokesmen were more guarded.

Political analyst Hugo Young says Mandelson is "closer to Blair than any other member of the Cabinet." His ties mean that Northern Ireland will remain high on the prime minister's political agenda.

Mandelson has a reputation as a "heavy hitter" and a skilled, highly cerebral negotiator. But 10 months ago he was forced to resign from the Blair Cabinet in a scandal over an unauthorized loan from another government minister.

His speedy return to a top-level post came as something of a surprise. Mr. Young contrasts Mowlam's "warm and emotional approach" with Mandelson's reputation for "cold calculation."

How Mandelson handles his new responsibilities, Young says, "will be a question of absorbing fascination."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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