- The Washington Times - Monday, December 11, 2000

President Clinton's farewell tour of the British Isles, beginning tomorrow, has taken on grave importance as both sides in the Northern Ireland peace process look to the president to save the effort from collapse.
With the 1998 Good Friday peace accord in trouble yet again, Mr. Clinton will be called on to use his personal popularity and carefully cultivated relationships with the region's political figures to renew momentum toward peace.
Formidable problems remain 2and 1/2 years after Northern Ireland's pro-British Protestants and pro-Irish Catholics signed the U.S.-brokered Good Friday Agreement a blueprint to end nearly 30 years of ethnic strife.
The reform of the province's police force and the pace of British military withdrawal along the Irish border are major hurdles. But it is the question of IRA decommissioning, or how the Irish Republican Army should dispose of its arsenal, that has proved the most difficult to resolve.
David Trimble, the first minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the leader of the pro-British Unionist party, has threatened to withdraw his support for the province's nascent government if the IRA does not begin to disarm in earnest.
The IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein, have said that decommissioning cannot occur until all other political disputes have been settled. The entire peace process nearly has collapsed on several occasions over decommissioning, and there is growing impatience on all sides to see the issue resolved.
Mr. Clinton has used two previous trips to Northern Ireland to help fortify the peace process, and there is almost unanimous acknowledgment that his efforts have been constructive.
"President Clinton has always shown a real interest and understanding of the problems facing Northern Ireland," said John Hume, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and leader of the Social Democrat and Labor Party. "That genuine and long-standing interest has won him many friends here."
Former Sen. George Mitchell, chairman of the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, became involved at the president's urgings, and Mr. Clinton added his own voice at crucial stages of those negotiations.
When the final agreement was reached, Mr. Clinton pledged more than $100 million in U.S. aid and sealed his interest with a second visit to the province in September 1998.
But expectations that Mr. Clinton would come prepared to engage in detailed negotiations during this visit have been down-
played, as neither side seems willing to make a dramatic step toward accommodation.
Mr. Clinton who is traveling with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, daughter Chelsea and mother-in-law Dorothy Rodham will spend most of tomorrow in the Irish Republic, arriving in Dublin and holding a rally in the Irish border town of Dundalk.
Tomorrow evening, he comes to the Northern Ireland capital of Belfast, where British Prime Minister Tony Blair will brief him ahead of formal meetings with the province's political parties on Wednesday. Thursday will be spent in London, where Mr. Clinton is scheduled to have an audience with the Queen.
"I hope the Clinton visit will advance discussions," said Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowan. "But it is not a guarantee of success."
Both sides have laid out their arguments through the media and in direct appeals to the president himself.
Last week, in a rare public statement, the IRA reiterated its willingness to put its weapons "completely and verifiably beyond use," but cautioned that such a move "cannot and will not happen on terms dictated by the British government or the [pro-British] unionists."
While the IRA twice has opened its arms bunkers to independent inspection under an agreement reached in May, unionists are frustrated that no further steps have been taken to permanently dispose of those weapons.
Earlier this month, in a letter to Mr. Clinton, Mr. Trimble argued that the president should use his leverage to push the IRA into a major concession on decommissioning. The republican movement owes the president a debt of gratitude, Mr. Trimble argued, for having helped usher them into the political mainstream.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams first visited the United States in January 1994, after Mr. Clinton agreed to issue him a visa. In the wake of the IRA's first cease-fire later that year, Sinn Fein was allowed to raise funds in the United States a move that has helped it become Ireland's wealthiest party.

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