History took a back seat to political maneuvering Monday as the planned start of negotiations on the future of Northern Ireland was delayed by the refusal of the nation’s biggest party to participate.
The Ulster Unionists said they may or may not show up at today’s session. Such hedging left the talks’ chairman, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, shuttling between the hesitant unionists and those ready to bargain. And it left British and Irish officials trying to put the best spin on a day when the historic start to peace talks never materialized.
“This is a problem that has gone on for 800 years, so if we have to wait a few more hours, so be it,” said Ray Burke, the Irish foreign minister, emerging with his British counterpart, Secretary of State Mo Mowlam.
Some Ulster Unionist sources suggested the party may make a token appearance at Stormont, where the talks are being held, but will not sit in the same room as Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. But those sources predicted their leader, David Trimble, would confront Sinn Fein face-to-face within two weeks.
Earlier Monday, Trimble stepped from his party’s headquarters downtown to say the British and Irish governments assured him that the consent principle, which since 1985 has been the bedrock of the Anglo-Irish efforts to secure a settlement in Northern Ireland, would not be watered down. That principle holds that unless a majority of its citizens vote otherwise, Northern Ireland will remain in the United Kingdom.
Trimble also claimed that the Irish government agreed with his party that getting the Irish Republican Army to begin giving up its weapons is an “indispensible” part of the peace process, a pledge he said Dublin refused to make in July.