Belfast waits, impatiently, for new impasse to end

Britain's Northern Ireland secretary held separate talks yesterday with pro-Irish and pro-British leaders, hoping to jump-start the peace process. FRESHLY daubed graffiti, such as "No arms handover" and "Mandelson must go," have begun to appear on walls in Catholic areas of Belfast.

Thirty miles away to the south in heavily Protestant Lisburn, the British flag and red-and-white Cross of St. George, symbols of loyalty to the British crown, flutter defiantly from every available lamppost from town to the airport.

But despite these signs of the latest snag in the difficult Northern Ireland peace process, a previously all-too-familiar element is absent: No British troops can be seen patrolling the streets, and you can drive around Belfast for an hour or two and not meet a single armored police vehicle. On the surface, at least, this is a province at peace.

Britain's top official in Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, may be under attack from pro-Ireland Catholics for having suspended the fledgling self-rule government after only eight weeks. Pro-British Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble continues to command what political analyst Paul Bew calls "unyielding support" from Protestants, who insist that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) hand over weapons before the peace process can resume.

Yet the cease-fires called by the IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups are holding, and that is a positive sign. A pair of minor blasts in the past month were claimed by the Continuity IRA, a splinter group that opposes the 1998 Good Friday peace accord. A series of shootings has been blamed on a feud between Protestant paramilitaries.

"It may be a second-class peace, but it is peace all the same," observes Hugh MacDonald, a business executive sipping tea in the lounge of Belfast's Europa Hotel. He adds, "It is absolutely vital that peace be put on a permanent footing. But before that can happen, there must be arms decommissioning. Otherwise the economic prospects for this place are poor." Mr. MacDonald, who has been the target of several bomb attacks during the 30 years of sectarian violence that has claimed more than 3,000 lives, is voicing sentiments shared by a significant majority of Northern Ireland citizens.

An opinion poll carried out for the Belfast Telegraph Feb. 21 found 75 percent of respondents believe the chances for peace are better now than at any time in the past five years. In addition, 64 percent of those who support the Good Friday accord blame politicians for blocking its full implementation, while 72 percent say paramilitaries are responsible for the lack of progress.

Speaking to people here, there is a sense that mainstream politicians want a pause in the peace process before substantive moves are made to put it back on track. Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political ally, on Sunday declared the peace process is "in tatters" and called on his supporters to "take to the streets in support of peace." He also insisted his top priority is to get Northern Ireland's democratic institutions back in place as soon as possible.

Mr. Trimble, who has been visiting the United States, remains adamant that before the Northern Ireland government, of which he is first minister, can go back to work, Mr. Adams must persuade the IRA to give ground on decommissioning.

Mr. Mandelson was to hold separate talks with both leaders yesterday.

Brid Rodgers, a minister in the suspended government and a leading member of the moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party, the main party representing Catholics in Northern Ireland, insists that the "zero sum game of brinkmanship" must end. Otherwise, she says, the field will be left open for "those who oppose partnership, are against change, and are determined to cling to outdated ideologies."

Until now, high-profile figures have helped nudge the peace process along at critical moments - among them President Clinton and former US Sen. George Mitchell. But Mr. Mitchell is refusing to play the role of peace broker once again, and the chances of Mr. Clinton being able to exercise influence this late in his presidency appear remote. That probably means it is up to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, to mount a new initiative. Dublin-based columnist Maurice Hayes says it is "now up to them to find a way forward."

Meanwhile, just about everyone in Northern Ireland, except for a minority of hotheads on both sides, are waiting with rising impatience for an end to what Mr. Hayes dismisses as the current round of "mutual recrimination by megaphone" being played by leading politicians.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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