the Good Friday agreement that brokered a cease-fire in Northern
Ireland and established a power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly
and executive finally run into the buffers? That seemed to be the
case over the weekend when the Weston Park talks between the British
and Irish premiers and the leaders of the main ''pro-agreement parties''
collapsed over — yet again — the IRA's refusal to de-commission
its armory of weapons.
government must now either suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly
or call new elections — elections that are likely to produce an
assembly even more divided and hostile to the power-sharing agreement
than the present one.
Since the Good
Friday agreement was sold to the Catholics as a giant stride toward
a united Ireland and to the Protestants as a strengthening of the
link with Britain, it can never really succeed. It must always be
a source of disagreement, conflict and friction.
But if it cannot
succeed, it can nonetheless ''not fail.'' It can be the occasion
for endless renegotiations as the various parties try to get their
interpretations of it accepted or, if things look bleak, to pin
the blame for its likely breakdown on the other side, without the
process ever actually breaking down. And however intransigently
the other parties behave, the two governments cannot walk out of
the talks because, as they themselves say from time to time, ''there
is no Plan B.''
It hardly needs
saying that for London and Dublin to boast that they have no alternative
to successful negotiations is not itself the best negotiating tactic.
It tells the other parties at the table that they can demand more
as the price of any final agreement. And that is especially so for
those parties that actually have an alternative to negotiating.
and Sinn Fein, for instance, can abandon negotiating whenever the
IRA signals a return to terrorism. Hence the IRA's repeated refusal
to disarm. Hence, too, last week's nationalist riots in the Ardoyne
area of Belfast. Since nothing happens in the Ardoyne without the
IRA's approval, as Conor Cruise O'Brien has noted, the riots were
a strong hint to both governments that ''an end to the cease-fire''
remains a Catholic-nationalist option if negotiations fail.
Not that Tony
Blair's government needs any such reminder. Ever since the Downing
Street Declaration, under both Blair and his predecessor John Major,
British policy has been driven by one consideration: preventing
any resumption of the IRA bombing of London. And since British ministers
cannot be sure that even stringent military and police measures
would succeed in preventing an IRA bombing campaign on the mainland,
they have to rely entirely on persuading the IRA not to bomb London.
the talks to founder, maybe temporarily, last weekend was the growing
resistance of the Protestant-Unionists. They have now reached the
conclusion — not an unreasonable one — that as long as the IRA retains
its weapons, the peace process will continually drift in a Catholic-nationalist
direction — because the two governments will be perpetually fearful
of an IRA resumption of violence. Unless the IRA disarms, therefore,
the main unionist parties will not remain in government with them
on the grounds that democracy should not be held hostage to the
threat of violence.
Some on the
Protestant side have already drawn more terrible conclusions. Significantly,
one of the small parties linked to the Protestant paramilitaries,
the Progressive Unionist Party, walked out of the talks early last
week in protest of the constant concessions to Sinn Fein. They have
pledged not to break the cease-fire — yet. But they are clearly
moving in that direction.
And as the
threat of renewed violence grows on both sides, the British — with
Dublin's full support — have effectively disarmed themselves. They
have no Plan B. The British policy today is like the title of an
old comic movie: ''Carry On Talking.''
Blair has nothing useful to say.
appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.