In the end, the foundations so painstakingly built by those who sought peace could not stand the weight of bitter history. Northern Ireland's promising experiment in coalition government ended after only 72 days when Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson, suspended it last week and reimposed direct rule from London. He was avoiding what he considered a worse fate--the resignation of David Trimble, the government's First Minister and leader of the Ulster Unionists who in November promised his party to quit unless the Irish Republican Army began to surrender its guns and explosives by now.
But the I.R.A. did not hammer its Semtex into plowshares--and refused even to offer a date when it would start. So Mandelson put the Ulster government in a kind of suspended animation, a political trick that may let him resolve the disarmament issue--"decommissioning," in peacemaking jargon--without destroying Northern Ireland's fragile coalition. But that will be a difficult trick. With recriminations rising and momentum flowing backward, Ulster's peace process is facing its worst crisis in years.
In Ulster the move was greeted more with sadness than with anger. There was little eager finger pointing at the I.R.A., just a kind of disappointment that the road to peace had once more reached a seemingly impassable stretch. On the ground, 30 years of the Troubles are effectively over. Paramilitary killings and bombings have dwindled. The economy is booming at 5% annual growth. The fledgling multiparty government, grappling surprisingly skillfully with the mundane tasks of locating new hospitals and funding schools, had begun to convince people that the province might soon face ordinary problems instead of extraordinary ones.
The decommissioning issue, however, has hovered constantly over even the most encouraging signs. How--and why--would the I.R.A. agree to give up its arms? The 1998 Good Friday agreement requires paramilitaries to hand over or render useless their weapons by May. But the mood in the air, and on the graffitied walls of Belfast, suggests that the I.R.A.'s hard men still see the destruction of their arms as a humiliation, not a gesture of peace. And though Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has not abandoned the May deadline, the I.R.A. will need to destroy a few weapons before London will defrost the government.
The Irish Republic's government and traditional republican supporters in the U.S. are twisting arms too, and it may be working. The same day Mandelson announced the suspension, the body in charge of decommissioning reported "valuable progress" from the I.R.A.'s representative, who declared that the group will now "consider how to put arms and explosives beyond use." That was too elliptical to keep Mandelson from pulling the plug, but it offers hope for a relatively short hiatus.
Suspending the government has raised the stakes for both sides. The unionists will not go back into government until some guns are forfeited; the I.R.A. will not give up any weapons while there is direct British rule. Mandelson's deep freeze may preserve Northern Ireland's government, but it is still a long way from saving the peace.
--By J.F.O. McAllister/London, with reporting by Chris Thornton/Belfast