Police, arms key tests for Belfast's stormy politics

President Clinton may again visit N. Ireland, where self-rule resumed overnight.

With Northern Ireland's peace process back on track - at least for the moment - President Clinton is said to be preparing one final effort to cement the province's fractious political parties into a durable settlement.

In the past, Mr. Clinton's intervention on behalf of the London and Dublin governments has been praised by all sides in the peace process.

Word that a presidential visit was in the works emerged within hours after the Ulster Unionist Council, ruling body of the province's largest pro-British political party, voted narrowly on Saturday to resume participation in Northern Ireland's self-rule government.

The Clinton visit is expected to take place in July or September. Officials close to Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson, say it will have an important bearing on whether power sharing continues, or again collapses amid sectarian bickering and mistrust.

In February, Britain was forced to suspend the devolved government after only two months in operation. First Minister David Trimble of the Ulster Unionists (UUP), had threatened to resign over a refusal by the Irish Republican Army to begin decommissioning its weapons.

Mr. Mandelson said Saturday's breakthrough vote gave people who wanted peace "a second chance" to achieve it.

Noting that the margin of victory was a mere 53 percent to 47 percent, however, he stressed that all parties to the peace process will have to show restraint in coming weeks.

At midnight last night, Mandelson was due to hand back formal powers over most areas of political life to local leaders.

On Thursday, the 12-member Cabinet will resume work, and next Monday the Northern Ireland assembly will meet in Belfast's Stormont Castle.

Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the main pro-Ireland party in Northern Ireland, said he hoped the revived government would bring in a new era of stability.

"What I do believe is that the body politic, and the community at large, and the political process simply cannot take another ending of this administration," Mr. Mallon told reporters in Belfast yesterday. "For that reason I think it will go, it will run and I hope it runs in the creative, imaginative way that it was meant to do."

Political analysts say Clinton's third visit as president to Northern Ireland is likely to have a much narrower focus than his previous interventions.

Paul Bew, professor of politics at Queen's University, Belfast, believes two issues are now at the top of the province's agenda. "The IRA is going to have to deliver on its promise to allow an international team to inspect its weapons dumps," he says. "And a way must be found to resolve the current disagreements between Protestants and Catholics about the future of Northern Ireland's police force." For the most part, Northern Ireland Protestants support British rule and reject closer ties to Ireland, while Catholics oppose British rule and regard themselves as Irish.

At the weekend meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council, policing was the most divisive issue.

Britain is proposing to strip the force, known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), of its name and badge, which reflect strong ties to British rule. Britain would also require the force, which is heavily Protestant, to recruit more Catholics into its ranks. Mr. Trimble faced calls by senior members of his party to reject the reforms of the RUC.

The IRA-allied Sinn Fein, meanwhile, insists that the RUC be renamed the Police Force of Northern Ireland, and that the British flag should no longer fly over police stations.

British government sources say Prime Minister Tony Blair would value Clinton's help in persuading both sides to reach a compromise on renaming the RUC, but there were reports last week that the president was unwilling to intervene at this stage.

It seems likely that he will be equally canny about stepping into the dispute over decommissioning terrorist arms.

The IRA has promised to begin opening its weapons and explosives dumps to international inspectors by early next month.

South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa, the former secretary-general of the African National Congress, and Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland, are expected to arrive unannounced in Northern Ireland in the near future.

Sinn Fein sources say the pair will be taken immediately to three IRA dumps. Reports from Belfast say the dumps are located south of the border in Ireland.

Jeffrey Donaldson, a leading UUP politician who opposed rejoining the government, warned Sunday that "if progress is not made quickly on the issue of arms, then I have a sense that we will be back at the council to discuss this matter."

Trimble would prefer to avoid another such meeting, lest he lose his slender majority and be forced out as UUP leader.

According to sources close to Mandelson, Britain hopes Trimble will be able to ensure that debates both within his party and in the Northern Ireland Cabinet are reasonably calm. If the arms inspections go ahead as planned, that seems likely.

The policing issue, however, appears less amenable to deft handling. There is a wide gulf between the positions of the UUP and Sinn Fein, and it is likely that Clinton will find that issue still bubbling, and requiring resolution, when he pays his farewell presidential visit to Belfast.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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