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Saturday, 9 December, 2000, 16:04 GMT
Political focus on Clinton visit

BBC Northern Ireland's political editor Stephen Grimason looks ahead to the visit to Northern Ireland of the US President, Bill Clinton.

When President Clinton's visit to Northern Ireland was announced just a few weeks ago there was a strong emphasis on how political the affair would be.

White House aides dismissed any suggestion that this would be a sort of sentimental journey.

It would be serious, they argued, and he would be trying to help get the peace process back on track.

When the Washington spotlight focused on what was really going on over here however, the difficulties came into sharp relief and the idea that the presidential visit should be a sort of deadline for a breakthrough has gradually been disavowed.

In the past few days, spokespeople for the administration have been at pains to point out that Mr Clinton will not be involved in actual negotiation of the key issues.

These issues are decommissioning, demilitarisation - in general but the south Armagh watchtowers in particular, policing and David Trimble's cross-border body ban on Sinn Fein ministers.


There is a feeling in the political ether that the president will provide the necessary cover for the real negotiations at Stormont during his few hours there.

Prime Minister Tony Blair will hold discussions with the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists in a bid to at least move things forward if the breakthrough is not available.

Those who have been around the peace process for a long time will, of course, keep in the back of their minds that it would not be the first time that expectations had been driven down to allow for something more substantive. Remember last May.

The day after Mr Clinton's visit ends, Sinn Fein ministers take David Trimble to court on the cross-border body issue.

Regardless of who wins when Mr Justice Kerr makes his ruling on the judicial review, the end result is likely to make the overall political position worse.

If Sinn Fein prevail then David Trimble will ratchet up the crisis in line with his motion at the Ulster Unionist Council, which talked of "progressively terminating" other institutions if there was any attempt to interfere with what he was doing on cross border bodies.

If Mr Trimble emerges smiling then there will be a major republican re-assessment of the Good Friday Agreement.

The dissidents will have a field day and will claim Sinn Fein signed up to a deal which gave the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party a veto on their participation in politics.

Questions

While that in itself would not bring down the Sinn Fein leadership, big questions would be asked, and there are voices within the military wing of the movement saying it could bring down the current IRA leadership.

"Thank God we don't have an IRA convention coming up," was the view of one senior republican who was talking about the current situation and not the circumstances that might present themselves if Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brun lost their court case.

I suppose if you were viewing the peace process from London and Dublin you would probably settle now for Bill Clinton's visit delivering a sort of holding position or interim deal which took the judicial review out of the equation by enticing the IRA back into engagement with General de Chastelain.

And it is not just the republican movement feeling the strain.

David Trimble told London correspondents he felt under no real pressure at the moment... the ball was in the IRA's court.

That may yet be seen to be a bit of nervous whistling in the dark to pretend he is not afraid.

David Trimble
David Trimble: Said he felt under no real pressure
The Ulster Unionist decommissioning review group issued a statement to say all IRA weapons had to be destroyed as a minimum requirement for keeping Sinn Fein in government.

Within 24 hours Jeffrey Donaldson was addressing Conservatives in Sunderland and indicating he would seek the recall of the Ulster Unionist Council in January.

Mr Trimble would of course like to forego the pleasures of another trip to the edge at the Waterfront Hall, and position A for him would be to get through to the annual meeting of the council in March without further confrontation.

The received wisdom among the "Trimbalistas" is that in March no one would dare mount a leadership challenge so close to a general election, or indeed the May local government elections.

But the anti-agreement Ulster Unionists could drive a coach and horses through that argument by producing 60 UUC signatures and demanding another council in January.

Small wonder then that the White House has downplayed talk of a breakthrough during the president's visit.

He will be dancing at the peace party in the Odyssey Centre but in political terms he will be on tiptoes at Stormont.

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See also:

07 Dec 00 | Northern Ireland
Clinton 'will not negotiate' in NI
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