NORTHERN Ireland's peace process gets another 'last chance'

Saturday, August 11th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Another moment of truth has melted away, another supposedly make-or-break deadline passed.

For eight years Northern Ireland's crisis-prone peace process has been hit by passing storms that threaten to drown it, yet each time it bobs back to the surface a little closer to lasting peace.

Politicians in Northern Ireland's Catholic-Protestant government should have been clearing their desks Saturday, heading for new elections and more instability after the collapse of their latest power-sharing arrangement.

Instead, thanks to Britain's exploitation of a legal loophole, they packed their bags for long-postponed vacations, resting up for the next ``last chance'' to sustain the Good Friday peace pact they struck three years ago.

A move by Britain to strip power from Northern Ireland's unraveling unity government for 24 hours gave all sides another six weeks to resolve key issues that have brought their power-sharing deal to the brink.

No question is bigger than the one unanswered since peacemaking efforts began in 1993: When, if ever, will the Irish Republican Army give up weapons?

While only the IRA can decide to start to disarm, all sides think the next round of talks could be a historic deal-clincher.

If it happens, much credit will go to the two great survivors of the peace process: Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams, who has been central to delivering peace, and the Ulster Unionist Party's David Trimble, without whom there would never have been a process.

Time and time again, Trimble has proved uniquely adept at keeping a slim majority of Protestants on board a process that offers the province's conservative pro-British community more pains than gains.

His resignation six weeks ago as the power-sharing government's leader, and refusal to return unless the IRA begins scrapping weapons, could represent his dying political act _ or greatest tactical triumph.

Adams has led his IRA-linked party down a path that offered many practical benefits for his Catholic supporters, but at the cost of sacrificing hallowed beliefs and splitting the IRA.

Under his leadership, Sinn Fein has gained more from the silence of most IRA weapons than they ever did from 27 years of unified bombing and assassination.

Whether Adams can get, or even wants, the IRA to start giving up guns now _ a move long branded ``surrender'' in IRA circles _ is the great unknown. But all the other pieces of the jigsaw are being laid out on the table.

They include the issues that Catholics most demand and Protestants resent: the withdrawal of as many British troops and closure of as many bases as possible, and the root-and-branch reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, whose mostly Protestant members the IRA spent more than a quarter decade slaying and maiming.

Getting the balance right in police reform is the linchpin for any wider deal. It strikes at the heart of each side's conflicting perception of right and wrong.

Catholic politicians have already seen Britain's still-confidential 175-point plan for changing the RUC into a new Police Service they can accept. The paper is supposed to be made public soon.

While Catholics say it still doesn't go far enough, Protestants say it goes too far. The change in prospect is particularly hurtful to the middle-class Protestants who sent their sons and daughters into police duty and who form Trimble's wavering support base.

Before resuming a cease-fire in 1997, the IRA's last victims were two officers in their 30s, John Graham and David Johnston. The IRA shot both of them point-blank through the back of the head. Though Britain and Ireland vowed to isolate Sinn Fein in the wake of those murders, both governments instead courted Sinn Fein, which gained speedy entry to wider negotiations that produced the Good Friday pact.

``This so-called peace process has felt so one-sided,'' said Pearl Graham, holding a portrait of her slain son. ``My boy was a good officer. The RUC is a good police force. They gave their lives and limbs for law-abiding society, yet the terrorists are in the government now.''

Three decades of conflict over Northern Ireland have left few families untouched in this land of 1.7 million _ 55 percent Protestant, 40 percent Catholic. For every Pearl Graham, there are Catholic mothers with their own lost loved ones, the victims of outlawed anti-Catholic groups and British security forces as well as the IRA.

For IRA supporters, the peace process has brought a series of bitter pills, sweetened only in part by the unrelenting rise of Sinn Fein as a political force under Adams.

Two decades ago, IRA men were starving themselves to death in prison as part of their refusal to accept British sovereignty. Today the Good Friday pact has enshrined Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom.

``Gerry's been a masterful salesman,'' said Tommy Gorman, a disillusioned former IRA member. ``He's got us demanding all the things we used to say we never wanted: Jobs as peelers (police) and a place in government in Northern Ireland _ a sectarian statelet that republicans aren't supposed to recognize, let alone try to reform. We've gone from being revolutionaries to helping the Brits govern this place.''