Recriminations flew Friday after the collapse, amid farce and bitterness, of the Northern Ireland peace agreement. They were directed primarily against Nobel Peace Prize winners David Trimble and John Hume, the leaders of the largest Protestant and Catholic parties in the British-ruled province. In London, the left-wing tabloid Daily Mirror said that Trimble, the first minister-designate of a new devolved Northern Ireland government (which was supposed to have been formed, but wasn’t, at Thursday’s chaotic inaugural meeting of the provincial parliament in Belfast), should give his prize back to the Swedes. By boycotting the meeting, and thus provoking the resignation of Catholic Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon, Trimble “achieved the near-impossible” of making Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, “look like a statesman,” the Mirror said in an editorial.
John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, to which Mallon belongs, the man who first brought Adams into the peace negotiations, also came in for criticism. The Financial Times of London reproached him for failing to guarantee that the SDLP would continue to govern the province with Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party if Sinn Fein were expelled from the yet-to-be-created Northern Ireland executive. Under legislation rushed through the British Parliament this week, this would happen if the Irish Republican Army, with which Sinn Fein is affiliated, were to persist in refusing to decommission its secret hoard of weapons. But the FT also reproached Trimble for his failure “to take a risk for peace.” “More was needed from this Nobel Peace Prize winner,” it said–and of Hume, “More was needed from this Nobel Peace Prize winner as well.”
Writing on the editorial page of the Irish Independent of Dublin, Ruth Dudley Edwards, a noted Catholic historian of the Ulster Protestants, was strong in her condemnation of Hume. “What David Trimble begged of John Hume, and what every moderate Ulster unionist wanted of him too, was that in the name of democracy he would stand by the Ulster Unionist Party and refuse to sit in government with the agents of armed paramilitaries,” she wrote. “Had he promised to exclude Sinn Fein without the beginning of decommissioning, he could have saved the Agreement. Instead, he played the tribal card. It will be up to his future biographers to judge this great failure of statesmanship.”
Dudley Edwards said it was “preposterous” to blame the debacle on Trimble, who, defending himself in an op-ed article for the Times of London Friday, wrote that the Ulster Unionists have an undeserved reputation for saying “no.” “We have said ‘yes’ to many things which would be countenanced in no other democracy,” he said–to “power-sharing with former terrorists” and to “a system of allocating ministries in the proposed Executive which would lead to an over-representation of nationalists.” Trimble pledged to continue the search for a peace process because “the prize for success is large enough for us all to put yesterday’s setbacks behind us and to move forward.” He has an enthusiastic supporter in the conservative Daily Telegraph of London, which said in an editorial Thursday that he deserved “the thanks of democrats throughout the world” for his stand on the decommissioning issue.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, described in the British papers as sad and fatigued, was also criticized over the collapse of the Good Friday agreement. “Blair suffers loss of credibility on Ulster” was an eight-column headline in the Guardian of London. The paper said that Blair had carried off a dramatic coup in negotiating the agreement last year–“he had the surest of touches back then”–but that “now, as the truly historic deal lurches towards the precipice, his own approach is increasingly confused and his credibility damaged.” The main charges against him are that he keeps inventing artificial negotiating deadlines that aren’t kept and that he “wavered wildly” in his approach to the all-important decommissioning issue. Adding to his woes on the worst day of his premiership, La Nazione of Florence published a letter Thursday from the Tuscan head of the old-guard Communist Party saying Blair would not be welcome on his annual holiday in Tuscany next month. “His ‘warrior’s stance’ on the Balkan crisis makes him distant from the feelings of our people,” wrote Roberto Pucci, who said there would be demonstrations against him.
British press coverage of the crisis was generally pessimistic, with the Times’ editorial Friday saying that Northern Ireland finds itself once again “at a melancholy crossroads under a lowering sky” and that its future is now “a space colonised by fear.” They qualified Blair’s pledge to battle on for peace with reports that he is privately deeply frustrated. The Irish newspapers, by contrast, looked more hopefully ahead. Both the Irish Independent and the Irish Times led their front pages with the news that former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who chaired the peace negotiations last year, has been invited to Downing Street next week to discuss with Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern what role he might play in resumed peace efforts in the fall.
By a strange coincidence, Mitchell went to Buckingham Palace Thursday to receive an honorary knighthood from the queen for his role in brokering the agreement. “It’s a day of irony,” he told the Irish Independent afterward. “No-one could have foreseen this would be the day the process encountered this difficulty in Northern Ireland.” Meanwhile, a writer on the front page of the Irish Times began his article, “Northern Ireland experienced another day of not making history yesterday.”