Former Senate majority leader George Mitchell got a boost today in his uphill struggle to revive the peace process in Northern Ireland as a new opinion poll showed that a strong majority of residents of the British province still supports last year's Good Friday agreement.
On the second day of a month-long review of the once promising peace process, Mitchell was able to use the new survey figures, published in today's Belfast Telegraph, to remind political leaders here that the people of Northern Ireland want the various parties to stop squabbling and put the Good Friday plan into effect.
Mitchell spent two years as the chief mediator in multiparty talks that led to last year's agreement, which sets up a power-sharing government for the province's Protestant and Catholic communities and requires disarmament by militia groups associated with both sides that have been battling for three decades. The deal was overwhelmingly endorsed in a referendum in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
Mitchell has deliberately kept his distance from efforts to implement the April 1998 accord on the theory that "it's their deal, and it's up to them to make it work," as he put it. But the old political and religious animosities here have made the agreement unworkable so far.
As evidence of the difficulty of the task ahead, Mitchell's first challenge is merely to get the province's political leadership in the same room. Since July, leaders of the largest Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, have refused to talk to leaders of Sinn Fein--a major Catholic-based party and the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, a militia group that has waged a violent struggle to end British rule here. Mitchell said he will spend this week talking to the nine participating parties separately, hoping to get them all together later in the month.
The political climate may turn bleaker on Thursday, when a review commission headed by Chris Patten, the former British governor of Hong Kong, is scheduled to issue its long-awaited plan for the future of the local police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The force is respected, even loved, by much of the Protestant community, but distrusted, even despised, by many Catholics. It's hard to imagine any blueprint that won't leave somebody angry.
Throughout the past 18 months of political bickering, the strongest force driving the peace plan has been the sense that Northern Ireland's 1.6 million residents enthusiastically support the agreement and want to see it implemented. Mitchell invoked the public will again today, saying: "The people of Northern Ireland have been clear, consistent and overwhelming in their desire for peace and political stability."
Some local leaders have questioned the strength of public support--especially after a troubled summer in which leaders of both communities failed to honor the commitments they made in the Good Friday deal.
The Ulster Unionists, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate David Trimble, boycotted the first official session of the cross-community assembly. This meant the government could not function, and it convinced many Catholics that the Protestant majority in the province is still not willing to share power.
That debacle was followed by murder and gun-running accusations against the Irish Republican Army. These charges convinced many Protestants that the IRA is still not willing to give up violence.
Despite those problems, however, the new poll shows that 73 percent of the people would vote the same way they did last year if the Good Friday agreement came up for reconsideration.