Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Peace process in peril

Dennis Duggan on the peace process:

A headline in the current issue of the Irish Voice weekly newspaper asks: "White House to Drop St. Pat's Party?" A second headline wonders: "Beginning of End for IRA?"

Those stories were fueled by rumors that began swirling around the Washington-Dublin-Belfast corridor after a Dec. 20 robbery in which an estimated $40 million was stolen from a bank in Belfast.

No one has been caught in that heist, but British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern have been pointing fingers at the Irish Republican Army.

The robbery came just as former senator George Mitchell of Maine seemed to be leading all sides to the finish line in the peace process.

Which leads to another question: Was the robbery intended to derail the peace process?

Irish writer Frank Delaney, whose new book "Ireland - A Novel" was published here yesterday, said over the phone that the robbery has at least left the peace process "wobbly on the tracks."

And Brian O'Dwyer, the son of Irish activist and former City Council Speaker Paul O'Dwyer, said yesterday that if it is true that the Bush administration will pull the welcome mat from under all parties in the North it would be a "bitter blow" for the peace process.

"If you can't have a goal that people can work for then you will see the gunmen coming back to fill the vacuum," said O'Dwyer, a lawyer who advised former President Bill Clinton on Irish affairs and attended the yearly White House gatherings since their start on St. Patrick's Day in 1993.

In an editorial in the Irish Voice it was said that "such a course would be both tragic and ultimately self-defeating."

The editorial added that the IRA's "rank and file have clearly been uneasy about this peace process from the start but have swallowed their misgivings."

"Any major deterioration in the peace process and the Young Turks may well be back at the arms dumps again," the editorial continued.

But then both sides have never trusted one another. Their grudges go back centuries and there is a telling joke about Irish Alzheimer's disease. "They forget everything but their grudges," the joke goes.

So when the IRA agreed a few months ago to decommission its weapons with oversight provided by two clerics - one a Protestant, the other a Catholic - Ian Paisley demanded that photographs be taken to make sure the guns were destroyed.

Paisley is the stick that stirs the passions of Northern Protestants who hate the Catholics as much as the Catholics hate them. The Protestants have had their way for centuries and they were dragged kicking into the peace process, which seemed completed last year.

In the 1980s I got a taste of the hate that filled the streets of Belfast. I rode around with the British soldiers as they scorned the IRA, calling it the "I ran away." And more than once I was thrown against a wall and searched by soldiers who viewed my press card as a joke.

All of that has changed in recent years. Belfast is a different city, thriving with new businesses. It is far safer than it was, Republican Congressman Peter King told me yesterday.

King also said he heard the rumors that the White House might not include any parties from the North at next month's St. Patrick's Day celebration.

But he said he refuses to believe those rumors.

"I am not a Bush apologist," he said "but the fact is that he has appointed a special envoy to Ireland. It would be a great tragedy having come so far in the past 10 years of the peace process to see it go down the drain."

Rita O'Hare, a spokeswomen for the Sinn Fein party headed by Gerry Adams, told me in a phone call from Ireland yesterday that "we really don't need a party in the White House to push the peace process ahead."

"But the fact is that this affair every St. Patrick's Day is filled with symbolism - mostly of the American government's interest in peace in Ireland," she said. "All this talk about leaving some people off the invitation list is distressing."

The State Department said a few days ago that no decision has been made on who or who wouldn't be invited to the White House this year.


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