- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2000

President Clinton is in Northern Ireland today for a "thank you" tour. Unfortunately, the peace process he has sponsored there, like so many others, is currently in shambles. The pro-British Unionist party is caught up in divisions and unhappy that the Irish Republican Army has not yet disarmed. The Sinn Fein, which wants one Ireland, is frustrated that the British haven't gone further to demilitarize. Both sides are asking Mr. Clinton to exert pressure on the other side to comply with their wishes. More than producing a new agreement, Mr. Clinton should use this opportunity to remind Northern Ireland of the mandate given the Good Friday accords when the parties voted to approve them.

That peace agreement, signed in 1998, established the framework for the peace process and Northern Ireland's shared government. But an atmosphere of distrust has rocked the foundation on which the accords were built, and hardliners on both sides are compromising the shared government's future.

Mr. Clinton will meet with the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Unionists and Sinn Fein today in Stormont in Belfast to create the framework for a possible new deal. The deal would see Sinn Fein engaging with the John de Chastelain Commission, the independent body charged with monitoring the IRA's arms dumps. In exchange, the British would implement the Patten report, which sets forth specific changes to Northern Ireland's policing service to make it more bipartisan. The British would also decrease the military presence there.

Most important for the future of the peace process will be convincing paramilitaries on both sides to put their weapons beyond use, and this is something it will be hard for the president to do in a meeting lasting an hour or two. Though the IRA has allowed initial inspections of its arms dumps, there is still little knowledge of the total number of weapons and their locations. For their part, the Protestant paramilitaries last week showed that their arms are not beyond use. Mr. Clinton comes to Northern Ireland after a week of attacks resulting in both Catholic and Protestant victims.

If indeed Mr. Clinton is ready to take on a role as "guardian of the Northern Ireland peace process" after he leaves office as his aides indicated in a Financial Times report he may need to retire in Belfast instead of New York. Only the people of Northern Ireland can solve this problem; it was they who voted against violence and for peace in Ulster.

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