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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Mitchell Returns to Belfast to Save the Peace Process

george-mitchellFormer United States Senator George Mitchell returns to Belfast on September 13, 1999 in a bid to prevent the Northern Ireland peace process from coming apart at the seams.

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)


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Bill Clinton Begins Four Day Irish Visit

clinton-guildhall-squareFormer U.S. president Bill Clinton begins a four-day visit to the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland on May 20, 2001 to try to advance the peace process. He spends time both north and south of the border, fulfilling engagements in Belfast, Derry, Enniskillen and Dublin.

Clinton’s goal is to use his influence to try to enhance the electoral fortunes of the parties that support the Good Friday Agreement, particularly David Trimble‘s Ulster Unionist Party, who are under pressure from Ian Paisley‘s anti-agreement Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Clinton arrives at Farranfore Airport, County Kerry, before heading to a round of golf at Ballybunion Golf Club with the former Irish deputy prime minister and Labour Party leader Dick Spring. He spends the night at Dromoland Castle, County Clare, before two days of public engagements in Dublin.

Trimble has vowed to quit as head of the Stormont Executive, where his party shares power with Sinn Féin, if the Irish Republican Party (IRA) has not started to get rid of its guns by July 1. Paisley, however, has accused Trimble and British Prime Minister Tony Blair of breaking their promises to the people of Northern Ireland by allowing into government a party linked to a terrorist group, without prior arms decommissioning.

While Clinton is no longer the most powerful man in the world, his charisma and his past efforts to keep the peace process moving are still appreciated by many. He receives Northern Ireland political leaders countless times at the White House and gives support and encouragement by phone during difficult periods of the peace talks.

Clinton delivers a lecture at Trinity College Dublin and attends a gala for peace and reconciliation at Dublin Castle, before travelling to Derry and then on to Belfast, where he receives an honorary degree from the former peace talks chairman George Mitchell, now chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast.

The leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), John Hume, who welcomes Clinton to Derry, says the former president has done a great deal of good for all the people of Ireland. But the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) deputy leader, Peter Robinson, claims that Clinton and Blair could have a negative effect on Trimble’s campaign. “As a unionist, I wouldn’t like to be sitting next to either of them just before an election,” he said. “Blair’s name is associated with the now-broken pledges he wrote on a board here just before the [Good Friday agreement] referendum, so for him to come over and moralise now won’t do much good. And Clinton is so disgraced and powerless that, while he might prop up the nationalist SDLP and Sinn Féin vote, he’ll have no impact on unionists voters.”

(Pictured: Bill Clinton and SDLP leader John Hume at public address at Guildhall Square in Derry. Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and Chelsea Clinton are in the second row.)


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Hume & Trimble Receive 1998 Nobel Peace Prize

hume-trimble-noble-prize-1998The 1998 Nobel Peace Prize is awarded on October 16, 1998 to John Hume and David Trimble, leaders of the largest Roman Catholic and Protestant political parties in Northern Ireland, for their efforts to bring peace to the long-polarized British province. The two men share the prize money of $960,000.

Hume, 61, the Catholic head of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, is cited by the Nobel Committee in Oslo for having been the “clearest and most consistent of Northern Ireland’s political leaders in his work for a peaceful solution.”

Trimble, 54, the Protestant leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, is honored for having demonstrated “great political courage when, at a critical stage in the process, he advocated solutions which led to the peace agreement.”

The leader of a third prominent party, Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), is not named as a prize winner. While it does not honor Adams, the committee says it wishes to “emphasize the importance of the positive contributions to the peace process made by other Northern Irish leaders.” Nor are several other figures mentioned as possibilities, including former Senator George Mitchell, who led the talks, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, United States President Bill Clinton, and Mo Mowlam, the British Government’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

The accord, signed on April 10 and known as the Good Friday Agreement, gives the 1.7 million residents of Northern Ireland a respite from the sectarian violence that has claimed more than 3,200 lives in the previous 30 years. It also opens the possibility of lasting stability for the first time since the establishment of Northern Ireland with partition from Ireland in 1921.

Forging concessions from fiercely antagonistic populations, the accord seeks to balance the Protestant majority’s wish to remain part of Britain with Catholic desires to strengthen ties to the Republic of Ireland to the south. The committee, seeing in Northern Ireland’s two warring groups a dispute with notable similarities to violent tribal confrontations elsewhere, expresses the hope that the accord will serve “to inspire peaceful solutions to other religious, ethnic and national conflicts around the world.”

Adams, in New York on a fund-raising trip for Sinn Féin, welcomes the Oslo announcement and particularly praises Hume, who is widely seen as having helped persuade the IRA to adopt a cease-fire and having eased Sinn Féin’s entry into the talks. “Indeed, there would be no peace process but for his courage and vision,” Adams says, adding, “No one deserves this accolade more.” He also wishes Trimble well and says the prize imposes on everyone the responsibility to “push ahead through the speedy implementation of the agreement.”

In the unforgiving politics of Northern Ireland, the Unionist dissidents and members of other Protestant parties who do not join in the peace talks attack both Trimble and Hume. Ian Paisley Jr., son of the head of the Democratic Unionist Party, calls the Nobel Committee’s decision a “farce” and says of the winners, “These people have not delivered peace, and they are not peacemakers.”

Trimble says he is “slightly uncomfortable” with the award because so many other people have been involved beside him in reaching the settlement and much remains to be done to put it in place. “We know that while we have the makings of peace, it is not wholly secure yet,” he tells the BBC from Denver, where he is on an 11-city North American tour to spur foreign investment in Ulster. “I hope it does not turn out to be premature.”

Hume receives word of the prize at his home in Londonderry and terms it “an expression of the total endorsement of the work of very many people.” He adds, “This isn’t just an award to David Trimble and myself. It is an award to all the people in Northern Ireland.”

In Washington, D.C., President Clinton says “how very pleased” he is, “personally and as President, that the Nobel Prize Committee has rewarded the courage and the people of Northern Ireland by giving the Nobel Peace Prize to John Hume and to David Trimble.” He adds “a special word of thanks” to George Mitchell, who issues a statement praising Hume and Trimble as “fully deserving of this honor.”

The peace talks began in the summer of 1996. They eventually draw the participation of 8 of the 10 Northern Irish parties, with many of the men around the table convicted murderers and bombers who had emerged from prison with a commitment to peaceful resolution to what for nearly a century have been referred to wearily as “the Troubles.” The paramilitary groups had also made the tactical decision that violence would not secure their goals, a shared conviction that gives these talks a chance for success that past fitful attempts at settlement lacked.

The peace talks move in a desultory manner until Blair takes office in May 1997 and highlights the cause of peace in Northern Ireland as an early commitment. At his and Ahern’s urging, the IRA declares a cease-fire in July, and by September Sinn Féin is permitted to join the talks.

Blair also gives Trimble and Adams unprecedented access to 10 Downing Street, and the Ulster Protestants report that they obtained from Clinton the most sympathetic hearing they ever had from an American President, allaying their longtime suspicions of Washington’s bias in favor of the Catholic minority.

(From: “2 Ulster Peacemakers Win the Nobel Prize,” The New York Times, Warren Hoge, October 17, 1998)