Former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, a man who has worked near-miracles in Northern Ireland, pulled another surprise out of his hat today when he called on the contending forces there to take the steps required to revive the peace process--in a single day.
As he concluded his 11-week "review" of the stalemate in the embattled British province, Mitchell said the only way to resolve the endless chicken-and-egg arguments about which side should act first would be for everybody to agree to act on the same day.
To get around the nagging "you first" problem, he said, "Devolution should take effect, then the executive should meet, and then the paramilitary groups should appoint their authorized representatives, all on the same day, in that order."
Devolution refers to the creation of a local government for the province as called for in the Good Friday peace agreement.
"I believe that a basis now exists for devolution to occur, for the [government] to be established, and for [weapons] decommissioning to take place as soon as possible," Mitchell said.
The response to Mitchell's simple but daring proposal was surprisingly conciliatory. Leaders in nearly all quarters of Northern Ireland's sharply divided political landscape agreed that the 66-year-old American has once again brought a degree of order out of chaos.
"There is no other way forward, and the people will be the real winners," Ulster Unionist negotiator Reg Empey said, according to the Reuters news service.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, whose party once said the struggle for Irish unity should be fought with a ballot in one hand and an Armalite rifle in the other, said, "Politics works, and politics can bring about changes."
This is not to say that Mitchell's one-day plan will be accepted. In particular, there is evident unhappiness in some corners of the province's Protestant majority. But it is clear that his intense work this fall has moved the competing parties to a more trusting and conciliatory stance.
Even more striking, he persuaded the Sinn Fein-allied Irish Republican Army to agree for the first time to take an active role in the peace process. The IRA's statement Wednesday that it will send a representative to meet with the commission in charge of paramilitary disarmament was arguably the most important step forward since last year's Good Friday agreement, the ambitious peace plan that Mitchell oversaw.
Until this week, the IRA had flatly rejected all calls for disarmament.
The key to success now is to move ahead quickly, before the warm glow Mitchell has created can start to chill. The first big test will be a mass meeting of the Ulster Unionists next week.
Under the Good Friday agreement, the government would have top executive branch positions for both unionists--those people, primarily Protestant, who want to retain the political union with Britain -- and republicans -- those people, primarily Roman Catholic, who want Northern Ireland to end its status as a British province and merge with the overwhelmingly Catholic Republic of Ireland.
The establishment of the new government was to be accompanied by voluntary disarmament by the paramilitary units, which have killed more than 3,500 people over the past 30 years. This requirement was aimed at militias in both camps, but the primary target was the IRA.
Within months of the signing of last year's agreement, unionists and republicans exchanged a series of increasingly nasty slurs and insults. Neither side was willing to act unless the other acted first. The Ulster Unionists said they would not take part in the new government until the IRA began disarming--a position they simplified to "no guns, no government."
Judging from responses by the parties today, Mitchell's plan seems likely to be endorsed by the leading Roman Catholic parties; the Progressive Unionists, a small but influential Protestant party; and the centrist "cross-community" parties. A group of conservative unionists clustered around the Rev. Ian Paisley will oppose Mitchell, but the Paisleyites don't have enough votes to block progress.
That means the decision of the Ulster Unionist Party, the largest Protestant party, will be crucial.
David Trimble, the Nobel Peace prize winner who heads the Ulster Unionists, has indicated that he will accept Mitchell's blueprint, trusting that the IRA really will start to give up "guns" after "government" has begun. In taking that stance, Trimble backed away from his previous position that disarmament must come first.
No one can say for sure whether Trimble can convince his party to go along with him. The party's deputy leader, John Taylor, argued this week that Wednesday's IRA statement is "nothing actually new." If Trimble were to lose the party vote, further stalemate would probably follow.
The Ulster Unionist Party has various committees and caucuses. Trimble has evidently chosen to entrust the decision, and his political future, to the party's largest executive body, with some 800 members from throughout the province. During the next week, Trimble is expected to launch a personal campaign around Northern Ireland to win over his party.
Trimble won't be joined on the hustings by Mitchell, who left for the United States today, saying he would not return for further negotiations. That's the same thing Mitchell said in 1998, when he left in triumph after the Good Friday agreement was signed.
CAPTION: Mitchell says the basis exists for forming a coalition government inN. Ireland and disarming guerrillas.