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A livid president chides pols over collapse of deal

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon and

Susan Falvella Garraty

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Clinton’s frustration with the turn of events in Northern Ireland was clearly on display at a press conference Thursday. He wagged his finger at Northern Ireland’s squabbling politicians and compared their actions to "school children arguing over who goes first."

Clinton was clearly disappointed in the refusal of the David Trimble-led Ulster Unionist Party to take part in the formation of the Northern Ireland’s Executive after repeated presidential efforts to move the peace process forward.

Clinton’s latest round of last-minute efforts to help were rebuffed by Trimble in the hours before the collapse of the Executive late last week.

At one point, Trimble refused to accept a phone call from Clinton, saying he was "too busy."

Speaking to visiting high school students from Colorado about the Columbine shooting tragedy, Clinton said, "It is hard for most Americans, I’m sure, and most people throughout the world to understand how a peace process could be stalled when both sides agree on every element of the peace process, and both sides agree on exactly what they both have to do between now and next May."

The president said he had personally done all he could and lauded British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern for their efforts.

"The idea that this whole thing could fall apart over an argument over who goes first sounds more reminiscent of something that might happen to these young people in their school careers six or seven years earlier in their lives. I mean, that’s basically what’s going on here. And you all need to understand it.

"There is no difference of opinion here about what the Good Friday accords require, what the communities of Ireland and Northern Ireland have voted for, what they are all committed to do. They are having a fight over who goes first, and acting today as if the whole thing could be abandoned over that."

Clinton’s extraordinarily candid and unscripted remarks "came straight from his heart," said a White House official.

In other reaction, Sen. Edward Kennedy said he was "deeply disappointed" by the failure of the parties to move forward with the peace process.

"The Good Friday peace agreement was endorsed by the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland, and it offers the only realistic hope for lasting peace for the two communities. We cannot let it fail," Kennedy said.

"It’s hard to understand why this moment was not seized . . . decommissioning was not a precondition for the formation of the Executive," Kennedy added while expressing the hope that "wiser counsels" would prevail in September with the expected review of the Good Friday agreement.

Kennedy said he hoped this would be a review of the workings of the agreement, not of the agreement itself.

Sen. Chris Dodd singled out Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble as having refused to lend his party’s support to a key provision of the Good Friday agreement, the formation of the legislature and its 12-member Executive.

"Ironically, in refusing to cooperate in the formation of the Assembly, the Ulster Unionists are further away from their stated goal of ensuring IRA decommissioning of its weapons at the earliest possible date," Dodd stated.

Rep. Ben Gilman, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, was particularly critical of unionists, though he avoided mentioning any particular party.

"[Unionist] rejectionists had finally made clear that the real debate was not about guns," Gilman said. Their real goal, he said, was "to hang on to unlimited power and thwart the will of the Irish people in both the North and the South."

Rep. Joe Crowley, co-chair of the congressional Ad Hoc Committee for Irish Affairs, was critical enough of Trimble to write a letter to the Nobel Peace Prize committee asking it "with some regret" to reconsider its awarding of the Nobel Prize to the UUP leader.

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said that all New Yorkers were saddened that the peace process was at an impasse.

"We hope that it is only a temporary one and urge all the parties to continue to negotiate toward a permanent solution." he said.

The City’s comptroller, Alan Hevesi, said that history would not treat kindly those who had missed an historic opportunity to achieve lasting peace by failing to implement all aspects of the Good Friday agreement.

Progress toward justice and peace could not be accomplished by standing still or by raising "extraneous issues" that stalled and endangered the delicate peace process, Hevesi said.

Newspaper reaction

Newspaper editorials around the U.S. expressed frustration but also pointed to continued hopes for better times ahead in the North despite the latest setback.

The Chicago Tribune said that all the air in the peace process had been "sucked out finally by the refusal of pro-British Protestants to abide by a peace agreement ratified by the electorate and to share with Catholic representatives the governing powers long wielded in the embattled province by the British."

The Tribune urged all the governments and parties to use the summer months to reach a compromise.

The Los Angeles Times stated that Trimble, by his "impatience" had set back by many months the work aimed at securing a settlement. "Momentum is gone now, and the fault lies with Trimble," the Times stated.

The Washington Post said that Trimble, "a Nobel peace laureate no less, came up short."

The paper was also critical of Sinn Féin: "At the least, Sinn Fein should have said that once it was in power it would disarm; instead it allowed to stand statements that it would not."

The New York Times also pointed to a failure of the IRA to promise disarmament, as unionists had sought. However, it then added: "More important, the Unionist rejection reveals a failure of imagination by the party and especially Mr. Trimble. While the IRA’s defiance is disappointing, the peace agreement does not require it to disarm before Sinn Fein joins Northern Ireland’s Government, as Unionists now want. The issue is also largely symbolic, as most parties in Northern Ireland began as armed groups. None ever disarmed."

The New York Post took a different tack, blaming the IRA’s "belligerent refusal to offer even a fig leaf" regarding decommissioning. This had "put the Ulster peace process once again on the blocks."

The Post said that the mere existence of the IRA weapons cache was enough to destroy the peace process because no democracy could function with such a threat hanging over its head.

"In that sense, Unionist politicians quite understandably boycotted yesterday’s meeting of the fledgling Belfast legislature," the Post stated.

The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial that compared the peace process in Northern Ireland with that in the Middle East, interpreted the UUP position as being a message from Trimble to the various governments that they should take a step back from managing the peace process and allow the parties in Northern Ireland to work things out for themselves.

Even before the UUP’s refusal to enter the executive, editorials were focusing on Trimble’s role in particular. The Cincinnati Enquirer pointed out that Trimble had been "silent on disarming loyalist extremists who have carried out about 160 pipe-bomb and gun attacks on nationalists this year."

The Nation magazine, in its current issue — printed before the UUP’s move — wrote in an editorial headed "Ulster Must Not Say No" that the real guarantor of peace and progress was a distribution of power that all sides found equitable.

"That can happen only if David Trimble and the unionist community take a leap of faith and consign ‘Ulster Says No’ to history."

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