The soft-spoken but firm Mitchell leads a review of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which he played a crucial part in brokering. The aim is to halt a renewed drift to violence by pro-British Protestant and pro-Irish Catholic paramilitaries, and to persuade the two communities to begin cooperating in the province’s elected assembly.
“The peace process is mired in mistrust on both sides of the sectarian divide,” says a British government official, who declines to be identified. “It will need somebody of Mr. Mitchell’s political caliber and neutrality to find a way forward.” The future role of the Northern Ireland police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), will be “part of the tangle [Mitchell] has to unravel,” the official adds. The 92% Protestant force, in a society where Catholics make up 42% of the population, is widely seen as requiring urgent attention.
The Protestant political leaders are unwilling to accept the good faith of Sinn Féin, the political ally of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). They are also attacking Northern Ireland Secretary of State Mo Mowlam for having refused to acknowledge that republican paramilitaries have breached the cease-fire despite several violent incidents and the discovery of an alleged plot to send arms to the IRA from the United States.
Mowlam’s decision enraged David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s main Protestant political party and first minister-designate in a devolved Belfast government. Trimble and his senior lieutenants called for her to be fired. Trimble also launches a bitter attack on the Patten Commission after a leaked report indicates it would recommend allowing active IRA members to join the RUC police force.
Mitchell’s main contribution to the peace process has been to insist that the issue of decommissioning terrorist arms must be addressed in parallel with talks on future political structures in Northern Ireland. But he still has to find a formula that will satisfy Unionists for the IRA to begin handing in its weapons and explosives. Trimble and other Protestant leaders insist the IRA must agree to decommission before Sinn Féin is allowed to join a devolved Belfast government. Sinn Féin says that was not part of the 1998 peace accord.
Most worrying for Mitchell is the recent outcry over IRA tactics that makes a solution to the problem of law and order all the more important. The IRA is known to use threats and so called “punishment beatings” to maintain law and order in areas under its control, where RUC forces dare not tread. Six Catholic youths are in hiding in Britain after being threatened with violence, even death, if they remained in Northern Ireland.
According to the RUC, the youths have been targeted because of their refusal to accept the authority of sectarian paramilitaries in the areas where they live. Vincent McKenna, spokesman for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Bureau, says, “The IRA thinks it has the right to police its own areas, and it is determined to punish anyone critical of the political direction of the Sinn Féin leadership.” He adds that since the Belfast agreement was signed 16 months earlier, 757 young people have been “exiled” by the IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups.
Mowlam reportedly says that if the Patten Commission can come up with a blueprint for the police that gives Catholics a larger role in legitimate law enforcement, the scope for policing by paramilitary groups will be reduced.
(From: “Mitchell returns to N. Ireland tinderbox,” The Christian Science Monitor, September 2, 1999)