- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2000

Over drinks at a Capitol Hill brew pub, Dermot Nesbitt still spoke with the title of junior minister for the two top leaders in the Northern Irish government. But somewhere between the brew and the end of the main course, the British government announced it would take back the power to rule Northern Ireland, suspending his authority in the Ulster executive. By the time the check arrived, he and his colleagues were once again a random amalgamation of what they had been before the new executive had formed: independent retailer, butcher's assistant, lecturer. Though they would be able to take up the same government positions again should the British reactivate the executive, the virtual ministers are now left to play wait-and-see while the Irish and British governments conduct a review of the peace process.

"I have done everything I can do," Mr. Nesbitt said with resolve. Unfortunately, the IRA hadn't deemed the tough compromises Mr. Nesbitt and his fellow Ulster Unionists made by agreeing to form a government with Sinn Fein before the IRA disarmed as good enough.

In the precarious last two weeks as the British government talked of taking back home rule from Northern Ireland, the IRA balked at making any verbal commitment to decommission; Sinn Fein fumed in the paramilitary group's defense, and negotiations carried on late into the night before the announcement only produced more confusion. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams claimed at the last minute that the IRA had offered the British government "a new and significant proposition to resolve the arms issue." Days later, the IRA broke off negotiations on disarmament, showing that once again, its words are nothing but rhetoric.

The British and Irish want desperately to believe there is hope so much so that Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and the de Chastelain Commission, responsible for monitoring the decommissioning process, were predicting early this week that the suspension of the government would be short-lived. Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen was even hoping Britain would restore the Ulster executive by this weekend.

Though it is good to be optimistic in the face of such a crisis, all sides must take a realistic and long view of the peace process. As the British and Irish governments meet to form a strategy for reactivating the Northern Irish executive, they need to think beyond the events of the last two weeks' crisis.

By creating a strategy that would provide both sides with consequences should they not follow through with their commitments to disarm and to carry on a shared executive, the British and Irish governments are not preparing for failure. They are addressing reality.

The truth is, when David Trimble rallied the Ulster Unionist Party to support sitting in a shared executive with Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, he did it on the precondition that the paramilitary group begin disarming by January. He and Mr. Nesbitt and three other Unionist ministers signed their names to postdated resignation letters which would go into effect should the disarming not occur. Mr. Adams understood this, but did not believe they would follow through. Now Mr. Adams has spent the week defending the IRA, though at this point he has not gotten it to agree to a specific timeline as to when it would begin disarming before the May completion deadline specified in the Good Friday accords.

If Mr. Adams does not want to be responsible for the IRA's stubbornness, he should publicly renounce his association with it. If he doesn't, the British and Irish governments should not reactivate the suspended government until the IRA proves its commitment to peace by beginning to turn over arms.

Progress is not an impossibility, though. "Think of all that's happened even since the meeting [with The Washington Times] this summer," Mr. Nesbitt said. At that time, he had talked of what it was like to sit at the same table with Martin McGuiness, a former IRA commander who spent the 1970s running from the law, at the multi-party peace talks at Stormont in the spring of 1998. "Now, I'm his No. 2," he said, referring to the fact that he served both the Catholic Sinn Fein and his own party, the Ulster Unionists, in the shared government.

Though minutes later, the phone call came that the government would be suspended, Mr. Nesbitt and his colleagues will still have a vital role to play in the peace process both behind the scenes in the upcoming days of negotiation, and officially in the future should home rule return to Northern Ireland. As they and the Irish and British governments look to the future, they must remember that reactivating home rule will only be a solution if disagreements over disarmament are resolved before executive power is returned to Ulster. Anything less would be farce, and would demean the peace Mr. Trimble and Mr. Nesbitt have worked thus far to achieve.

Sarah Means is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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