In an angry torrent of insults, tears and threats, the Northern Ireland peace process fell to pieces today, leaving British and Irish politicians a long and potentially dangerous summer to ponder how -- or even whether -- it can be put back together.
On the day this sharply divided British province was to inaugurate its new cross-community government, the largest Protestant party decided to boycott the proceedings after rejecting the latest compromise plan offered by Prime Minister Tony Blair. The remaining parties did gather in the newly created Northern Ireland assembly, but after three bitter hours of name-calling and blame-placing, the assembly was adjourned -- with no one certain when it might meet again.
Blair said he was "frustrated and disappointed" but added, "I won't give up." His cabinet minister for Northern Ireland, Marjorie Mowlam, suspended the nascent government here and set in motion a "formal review" of the Good Friday agreement -- the ambitious multi-party accord that had seemed to give this province new hope for peace and power-sharing when it was agreed to in April 1998.
The peace process will now be placed on hold until autumn at the earliest, raising fears that Protestant and Catholic, British unionist and Irish nationalist could return to the civil strife that has killed more than 3,500 people here over the last 30 years. Radio stations in Belfast warned listeners early tonight to stay off the streets -- where the sense of hope, even euphoria, that swept the province on Good Friday 15 months ago has given way to a palpable feeling of despair and disgust.
The agreement was derailed by two issues that have weighed on it from the beginning: guns and government.
The predominantly Protestant unionists, who favor the current political union with Britain, insisted that the Irish Republican Army, the largest Catholic paramilitary group, must begin surrendering its weapons before a power-sharing government can assume office. The predominantly Catholic Irish nationalists, who want to form a single nation with the Republic of Ireland, resisted this demand, noting that the text of the Good Friday agreement calls for creation of a new government first, followed by disarmament to be completed next year.
Late Wednesday, Blair produced yet another plan that was designed to bridge the difference by granting a new four-party cabinet, effectively a provincial government, executive authority in the province. But the Ulster Unionist Party, led by David Trimble, rejected the offer, dooming chances for agreement with other unionist, nationalist and centrist parties.
"The last thing the people of Northern Ireland need now," Mowlam said, "is an outbreak of recriminations." But that's exactly what the people got this morning, when politicians gathered in the ornate assembly hall here and displayed the distrust and bigotry that caused most of Northern Ireland's troubles in the first place.
The boycott by Trimble's party left 27 of the 108 assembly seats vacant, but those who did appear filled the chamber with acrimony, catcalls and loud, sardonic laughter. As Gerry Adams -- head of Sinn Fein, the primarily Catholic political wing of the Irish Republican Army -- rose to speak, insults poured forth from the Protestant side of the chamber. "Blood on your hands!" bellowed one member. "Go to confession!" shouted another.
Then members on both sides started calling out the locations of notorious paramilitary killings: "Bloody Friday!" one side shouted. "Balcomb Street!" the others fired back. For his part, Adams proclaimed that the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of a staunchly anti-agreement party, "has been disgraceful."
Seamus Mallon, a Catholic member of the centrist Social Democratic and Labor Party, gave a heartfelt speech announcing his resignation as designated deputy first minister, the second-ranking official in the proposed provincial government. The emotion of the moment was undermined, however, because Protestant members rose every few seconds to interrupt this farewell oration with parliamentary points of order.
One of the few speakers to bring the chamber to silence was David Ervine, head of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is allied with the Ulster Volunteer Force, a Protestant paramilitary group. Ervine described the conduct of those in the chamber as "obscene" and warned his fellow unionists that they will be blamed for the collapse of the peace process. "The unionist community is committing political suicide for very narrow selfish reasons," he said.
In the end, however, all parties involved and the long-suffering people of Northern Ireland shared in the loss.
The 1.6 million residents of the province have made it clear that they want the peace process to bear fruit, but today they saw their hopes dashed yet again. The nationalist camp, primarily members of the Catholic minority, lost its chance to gain a spot in provincial government for the first time in its long struggle against unionist domination. The unionist parties, saddled with most of the blame for the collapse of the process, began blasting away at each other.
Paisley declared that the sidetracking of the peace process means "our people won." In fact, Paisley and his allies have been among the biggest losers over the past year. He was once the dominant political force in the province; now, his anti-agreement stance has reduced his Democratic Unionist Party to that of a minor player.
Blair and his close ally in the effort to bring peace to the province, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, suffered serious setbacks with a project both had claimed as a major achievement. But both men will probably escape domestic political damage, since -- like an American president working for peace in the Middle East -- Blair and Ahern are getting credit at home for putting so much hard work into a problem widely viewed as intractable.
Much the same can be said for President Clinton. His work in behalf of the Good Friday accord made him enormously popular here, and he is one of very few politicians who can claim to be respected by both the unionists and nationalists.
Speaking to reporters at the White House today, Clinton said that despite today's setback he is optimistic the peace process will eventually move forward. "I believe there is too much invested in this, and I believe that sooner rather than later we'll get this thing back on track," he said.
Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, Clinton's Northern Ireland emissary who mediated the Good Friday accord, is to return to London Tuesday to meet with Blair.
CAPTION: Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams calls behavior of unionist rival "disgraceful."
CAPTION: Unionist David Trimble tells media his party will boycott government.