Negotiators in Northern Ireland’s peace talks turned to their American chairman Monday to crack the whip and force results in the final critical days of debate.
Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who has overseen the talks since June 1996, said the British and Irish governments and the eight parties taking part want a tight schedule up to the April 9 deadline.
Mitchell said he would set targets and recommend compromise paths through key areas of difficulty, “based only upon the most full and careful consultation with all the participants.”
But Mitchell said he was taking heart from the politicians’ new “seriousness of purpose.”
“I think I have enough experience to judge when something is realistic, and I think it is realistic to expect that agreement will be reached,” he said.
The two governments recommended in January that the north’s pro-British Protestant majority and substantial Catholic minority govern Northern Ireland in coalition, and send representatives to a cross-border council with the neighboring Irish Republic.
While most participants accept this suggestion as practical, the main Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, and Catholic politicians can’t agree on how power would be divided between the proposed Belfast assembly and cross-border council.
The Ulster Unionists want Northern Ireland politicians to maintain control over their own affairs and are wary of giving a cross-border council any decision-making authority.
Catholics, moderates and Irish Republican Army supporters insist that the reverse must be the case to further their hopes of uniting Ireland.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern subtly criticized the Ulster Unionists’ position, saying many Protestant politicians think cross-border relations “should be chat shows.”
“Well, that is not our position,” he said. “We want to see meaningful, powerful north-south bodies.”
Ahern emphasized that his government was nearing a decision on a redrafted version of the Irish Republic’s 60-year-old constitutional claim to Northern Ireland. Protestants have long complained that the claim, which defines Northern Ireland as part of the Irish Republic, must be softened or abolished as part of a settlement.
But Ahern said such a change wouldn’t make him less hopeful that the two would one day be joined.
“I make no secret that, in the long term, I want to see a united Ireland brought about by agreement and peace,” he said.
Though Mitchell said he believed agreement was possible, some politicians seemed less sure.
“Imagine us coming out of here with failure,” said Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the north’s main Catholic party, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, which wants Ireland united but opposes IRA violence.
Mallon said that would leave politicians in a dead end and the field clear for rival paramilitary groups to end their cease-fires and push Northern Ireland closer to civil war.
Others were cautiously optimistic.
“Either there’ll be an agreement, or an identification that no agreement is possible. And we’ll know that within a couple weeks,” said David Ervine, who represents one of Northern Ireland’s pro-British paramilitary groups, the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force.
“But it’s a historical time. Let’s hope it’s not a hysterical time. People need to get on with practical work here. It can be done, if everybody holds their nerve.”