For third visit, Clinton faces fraying Belfast peace deal

BELFAST, Northern Ireland - It was supposed to be his jubilant ''victory lap'' of Northern Ireland, a celebration of a historic deal concluded and an elusive peace secured.

But when President Clinton returns to Belfast this week, he'll find a peace process once again flirting with disaster.

The joint Catholic-Protestant government at the heart of 1998's peace accord is buckling under mounting mistrust and could be mothballed within weeks. And the Irish Republican Army, fearful of exacerbating a deadly split within its ranks, is refusing to deliver a promised start to disarmament that would relieve the pressure on other factions.

For the third time in five years, each side is looking to Clinton's intervention as a last, best chance to tip the scales in their favor.

''We desperately need a deal before Christmas, and we have to hope that President Clinton's coming heralds the end game - because the alternative is just too terrible to contemplate,'' said David Ervine, a Protestant politician linked to one of Northern Ireland's outlawed pro-British groups responsible for killing eight people in recent months.

''If Bill Clinton was the British prime minister, we wouldn't be in the fix we're in,'' said Gerry Adams, whose IRA-linked Sinn Fein party has benefited the most from Clinton's unprecedented commitment to Northern Ireland.

But with the president's lame-duck status and key obstacles as intractable as ever, American officials are playing down the prospect of any Clinton-choreographed breakthrough.

''He's well aware, as I am, of the limits of American contribution,'' said former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who brokered the 1998 accord and will be accompanying Clinton. ''We're not the primary participants. We don't make the decisions. We don't dictate to anyone what they should or shouldn't do.''

Clinton's previous two visits proved public relations triumphs, but delivered mixed diplomatic results.

In 1995, talks on Northern Ireland's future had yet to begin, with Protestants demanding IRA disarmament before they would sit down with Sinn Fein's Adams.

On the eve of his arrival, Clinton picked Mitchell to recommend a compromise course on disarmament. While in Belfast, the president publicly shook Adams' hand, but also used his main speech to turn on its head a favored IRA catch phrase - ''Our day will come'' - by declaring ''Your day is over.''

That proved wishful thinking. IRA commanders, it later transpired, already had decided to abandon their 1994 cease-fire once Clinton had gone. Two months later, a truck bomb tore apart a London business district and killed two people.

By Clinton's second visit in 1998, Northern Ireland had endured a roller coaster of breakthroughs and crises culminating in the Good Friday accord that year. But the sweeping pact contained many unresolved arguments, and its central hope of forging a cross-community government including Sinn Fein remained mired in the argument over when the IRA must start scrapping weapons.

Clinton set two goals before that trip: to get the IRA finally to engage with the province's long-idle disarmament commission and to coax David Trimble, the designated Protestant leader of the then-unformed power-sharing government, to begin speaking to Adams.

Trimble complied, but his encounters with Adams soon turned frosty and unproductive. A symbolic barrier had been broken without producing tangible gains.

Sinn Fein appeared to play ball, too, sending a senior figure - former IRA commander Martin McGuinness - into disarmament talks. But Sinn Fein later privately conceded this was a hollow gesture to relieve temporary pressure; McGuinness insisted he had no authority to represent the IRA or to discuss the outlawed group's secret weapons dumps.

It took a further marathon diplomatic push by Mitchell to achieve an agreement between Trimble's Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein, the key adversaries in the intended four-party government.

Their unlikely coalition took shape last December, but came crashing down again in February when the IRA refused to begin disarming.

It rose from the dead in May when the IRA offered an apparently binding pledge to put its weapons ''beyond use,'' a euphemism for disarmament. But that promise stunned the secretive ranks of the IRA, whose members had been assured they would never disarm.

An already bitter split grew more dangerous, leading to the assassination two months ago of a senior IRA dissident in Sinn Fein's heartland of Catholic west Belfast.

The IRA has managed a single brief phone call with the disarmament commission, and last week highlighted key reasons why it won't yet disarm - too many British troops still in Northern Ireland, too little change in prospect for the province's overwhelmingly Protestant police.

For his part, Trimble teeters on the brink of political extinction. Nearly half his party opposes him and fears electoral meltdown at the next election, expected in May.

If the IRA doesn't move, Trimble's withdrawal from government or ouster from the Ulster Unionist leadership becomes increasingly likely in January. Either development would wreck the power-sharing experiment.

''We cannot expect President Clinton to resolve all our problems in 24 hours - not when they have defied years of effort,'' said Adrian Guelke, who teaches politics at Queen's University in Belfast.

''But his past visits have been productive and important, and we should expect this one to nudge the process forward, too. The question is, of course, whether a nudge will be enough.''


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