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14 October 1999 Edition

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Make or break time for Agreement


For some considerable time now, the excuse for lack of political movement in the peace prcocess has been that nothing could happen until the Ulster Unionist Party Annual Conference was out of the way. The exact same excuse for a similar lack of movement was used last year. But now, as then, it was never anything more than an excuse and a smokescreen for David Trimble's self-imposed inertia.

If Trimble refuses to get real, honour what he agreed to on Good Friday 1998 and do business, the ball will be firmly in the court of both governments, particularly the British
If the UUP conference demonstrated anything it was that David Trimble's leadership of the party is not under threat. There were no attacks on his leadership from any significant quarter and in fact his own performance was one of a confident and assured party leader who knew where he stood.

So what were we all asked to have patience and to wait for? Where was the white smoke in Enniskillen? There was none. Instead David Trimble, if anything, hardened his position and used the conference to paint his party further into a corner, signalling that there would be no change in its untenable and unworkable policy of `no guns no government'.

In Eniskillen, David Trimble sang from the same hymn-sheet as those within his party who actively and openly oppose the Good Friday Agreement.

On the very eve of the conference, Trimble released a document outlining his position on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement which showed no change whatsoever in the obstructionist approach.

Responding to this, Sinn Féin negotiator Gerry Kelly said that Trimble had thrown down the gauntelt to the two governments and had effectively joined Ian Paisley's DUP in its rejection of the Mitchell Review:

``David Trimble's blunt reiteration this morning of the intransigent position pursued by the UUP for 18 months, has dealt a savage blow to the hopes of millions of people on this island, and in Britain who want the Mitchell review to work.

``The UUP leader's bad faith and clear breach of the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement will have sent a shudder of despondency through all of those hoping that the Agreement might yet be made to work.

``While there will be those who will excuse Mr Trimble's remarks as posturing in advance of his party conference, the reality is that Mr Trimble has been consistent. His `no guns, no government' position, and his efforts to rewrite the Agreement, and in particular the role of the commissions established under it, have been a constant theme of UUP policy since the Agreement was signed.''

``The UUP is locked in a past which spurns true democracy and believes nationalists and republicans should remain in an inferior place.''

If we are to take the sanguine view that Trimble's address to the UUP conference was mere gallery-playing in advance of the real politics in which unionism must eventually engage, David Trimble has only a few short days to demonstrate his real intentions. But hope that the Mitchell Review will map a path through the current political impasse is faltering rapidly.

Following a meeting with Fine Gael leader John Bruton in Dublin on Thursday, 7 October, Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness said that the prospects for the peace process were bleak but that Sinn Féin had not given up on the Agreement.

``We have lost 18 months since the Good Friday Agreement, but here is no point in recriminating about that,'' he said. ``We have to look to the future. Even though the situation is bleak we are not giving up.''

The lack of any progress and the monotonus repetition of the position of Unionism that it will not allow the establishment of the Excutive has led somewhat to a lack of focus. This is particularly evident in the media, with a disproportionate concentration on side issues such as the appointment of Peter Mandelson as the new British direct ruler in the north and speculation about whether the talks venue under the Mitchell Review will be moved out of Ireland.

Commenting on Monday in response to news that Mo Mowlam was to be replaced as Six-County Secretary of State, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said: ``I wish Mo Mowlam well in her new job.

``I am sure that she will bring to it the same energy and focus she brought to her time in the north.

``Mo Mowlam played a central role in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement. While personalities impact on any situation what is critical is the politics, and in particular in this instance, the policy of the British government.

``It is crucial that her successor implements British government policy which is the Good Friday Agreement, and that he resists unionist attempts to rewrite, reinterpret or renegotiate the Agreement.

``I will be seeking an urgent and early meeting with Mr Mandelson.''

Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly led a Sinn Féin delegation to London on Wednesday, 13 October to participate in talks under the Review chaired by US Senator George Mitchell.

The requirement for progress over the next week is that David Trimble must get real. There is no time left if the Agreement is to be rescued. If Trimble refuses to get real, honour what he agreed to on Good Friday 1998 and do business, the ball will be firmly in the court of both governments. In particular the major responsibility will lie with the British government not to reward unionism for reneging on its committments and to ensure that what was agreed18 months ago is implemented.


Mandelson's Stormont stop-off

Tellingly, in amongst much sniping about Mandelson's new house, most of the commentary has been more interested in how his new job will affect his own long-term political career than in how he is likely to influence the peace process

David Trimble finally got his way on Monday when the appointment of Labour's spin-meister Peter Mandelson as Six-County Secretary of State was announced as part of Tony Blair's cabinet reshuffle.

Trimble, who could barely conceal his satisfaction at the news, managed to pay a grudging tribute to the departing Mo Mowlam only through gritted teeth. He has campaigned long and hard for her removal and has also made no secret of the fact that Mandelson was his preferred choice as replacement. Unionists hope and believe that, being on the right of the Labour Party, Mandelson is likely to be more sympathetic to their view than was Mowlam.

Ken Maginnis was less circumspect than his party leader, saying that there was a ``huge sense of relief'' amongst his party that a ``hard head'' had replaced a ``hasty heart''. If he were really as straight-talking as he would have the world believe, he would have said what he really meant - for ``hard head'' read ``man'' and for ``hasty heart'' read ``woman''.

The Ulster Unionists' friends in the Conservative party were far less enthusiastic, however, fulminating over the appointment with Andrew Mackay denouncing Tony Blair's ``arrogance'' in bringing back former trade secretary Mandelson just ten months after he was forced to resign from the Cabinet over his financial affairs. His undisclosed £373,000 loan from Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson to buy a London home was investigated by the Labour-dominated Standards and Privileges Committee of the House of Commons but no action was taken against him.

William Hague's speech writers were obviously on overtime, as he opined: ``If Roland Rat were appointed to Northern Ireland, I would tell people to work with him. But I would still point out that he is a rat.''

Despite the open unionist lobbying for Mandelson, and the carefully managed media speculation which has appeared over the past few months, his appointment has been greeted with surprise by most of the media. Tellingly, in amongst much sniping about his new house, most of the commentary has been more interested in how his new job will affect his own long-term political career than in how he is likely to influence the peace process. It has been pointed out that he - as yet - does not have any enemies amongst the political parties, although it could be argued that this is because he has never shown even the slightest interest in events in the north of Ireland and for that reason alone has managed to avoid making any unfortunate or controversial public comment.

The bland proclamations from the steps of Castle Buildings on Tuesday were uttered as if reading from someone else's script and there was little sign of any genuine personal engagement with the issues affecting people's lives. Indeed, there is a real sense that his appointment was made in anticipation of the total collapse of the process, so that neither Mandelson nor the sainted Mo are contaminated by the scent of failure. He immediately slipped into the traditional honest-broker stance, saying that it is ``up to the parties to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement is implemented'', conveniently obscuring the fact that the British government is also party to the Agreement and under obligation to implement those parts for which it has direct responsibility.

The truth is that Peter Mandelson has been given the job simply as an acceptable way of easing his way back into the British cabinet - where he does have enemies - and not because he has any inclination either to do the job for its own sake or because he has any particular personal qualities to bring to it.

Stormont, for all the grandeur and despite the high hopes of Unionists, is merely a stop-off for Mandelson, a means to an end, a way for both he and Blair to engineer his way up the political ladder with as little fuss as possible after what Blair referred to as his ``mistake'' in not being open about his home loan to either Parliament or to his mortgage company.


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