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Thursday, 30 November, 2000, 13:45 GMT
Clinton may get new peacemaker role
President Clinton on Air Force One:
President Clinton on Air Force One: heading to NI soon
By BBC NI's political editor Stephen Grimason

The worst kept secret in politics is now officially out.

President Clinton is coming back to Northern Ireland but his final visit will not be just a sentimental journey.

He is acutely aware that London and Dublin are trying to put together a rescue package that might just get the parties over the latest hurdle and he will have a part to play.

To that end, this will be a much more overtly political occasion than the previous two visits.

He does not want to fly into a mess but there has been a growing sense of crisis among the main players in recent weeks.

The muted rumblings from within Sinn Fein about the current direction of the peace process have become more of an angry buzz.

Predictably, republicans came out fighting about the new Police Act which received Royal assent.

No, they would not sit on policing boards and would actively counsel young nationalists against joining the new force.

The SDLP too has major problems with the new act, but is suggesting the implementation plan, which sets out how and when all the new bits of the jigsaw will be put into place, will be the new battleground on this subject.

Republican worries

This "not yet" position has been backed by the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who clearly believes the game is still being played.

But beyond those obvious difficulties, republicans are beginning to talk in terms they have not used before.

One senior figure in Sinn Fein suggested to me the leadership's position was, given current events, in danger of becoming untenable.

He said the British Government, by reneging on commitments made last summer on demilitarisation, policing and the timescales for working those problems out, was pulling the rug from under the republican leadership.

And he argued that this approach was breathing new life into republican dissidents who were already averaging an attack every 12 days.

Until this point, Sinn Fein have been dismissive and even contemptuous of those dissidents and it is worth noting the change in emphasis.

Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brun are, of course, now in court over David Trimble's decision to keep them out of cross border bodies.

If they lose the legal argument, the dissidents will be able to claim, with some justification, that republicans were led by their own leaders into a situation where the leader of Ulster Unionism decides what part they will play in the peace process.

For all that, however, Sinn Fein maintain their real gripe is not with David Trimble but with Tony Blair.

Northern Ireland Secretary
Peter Mandelson: Not good relationship with Sinn Fein
The prime minister's servant in Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, has virtually no relationship with the party.

And republican sources say virtually every meeting between the secretary of state and Martin McGuinness in recent months has ended up as a blazing row.

Sinn Fein have effectively accused Mr Mandelson of overturning decisions made by Mr Blair, but even if that is true, how could he get away with it unless the prime minister supported him?

And anyway, the government would counter, why doesn't the IRA take a lot of the heat out of the situation by lifting the telephone and giving General de Chastelain a ring?

At the core of the current dispute between the government and republicans is what is becoming known as the "south Armagh question".

In that area, republicans are clamouring for the dismantling of British Army bases and other military fixtures and fittings.

Sinn Fein argues the weight of opinion in favour of the Good Friday Agreement is enough to beat the dissidents, and that the government should place its trust in the people there rather than soldiers.

But from his standpoint, the secretary of state cannot not leave the area defenceless. There are more than just republicans to consider, he would argue.

Stand-off

The border has been a tough environment for the unionists who live there and who regard the military presence as the only security blanket they have and therefore the soldiers, rather than the people, are the best defence.

The result is a stand-off, neither side of the argument entirely understanding the other.

Momentum has been, and remains, a crucial ingredient in resolving disputes in the peace process but there is a clear and present danger of the whole thing becoming bogged down on policing, cross border bodies and in court actions.

It is above this scenario that President Clinton's parachute will open in mid-December.

He is expected to spend a significant part of his time at Stormont where he may address the assembly and hold meetings with the key players in the peace process.

Rescue package

There is an unnofficial deadline of 15 December for finding a way out of the current mess and that's just 24 hours after the president is due to head back to the United States.

Any rescue package will of course include decommissioning, policing, demilitarisation and David Trimble's bar on Sinn Fein ministers attending cross border bodies.

In practical political terms, Mr Clinton broadly backs the nationalist position on policing and the Ulster Unionist position on decommissioning.

London and Dublin hope he will be able to help find a trade-off on these and the other issues.

His very presence will apply enormous public pressure on the main players, the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Sinn Fein, to cut a deal.

Helicopters on the lawn at Stormont....haven't we been here before?

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See also:

24 Nov 00 | Northern Ireland
Catholics urged to join NI police
24 Nov 00 | Northern Ireland
Sinn Fein rebuke for police service
24 Nov 00 | Northern Ireland
Support urged for police act
22 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Government forces through NI bill
21 Nov 00 | Northern Ireland
NI Police Bill to become law
17 Nov 00 | Northern Ireland
SDLP call over Policing Bill
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