According to the main headline in the Daily Telegraph of London Thursday, Northern Ireland is now “looking into the abyss.” It said the peace process is “on the verge of unravelling” as the British and Irish prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, failed to find a way out of the impasse caused by Britain’s suspension of the parliament in Belfast and the withdrawal of the Irish Republican Army from talks on giving up its weapons. In an op-ed article in the Telegraph, Nobel Peace Prize laureate David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, wrote that his party has reached “the end of the road for a policy of continuous accommodation” with the republican Sinn Fein Party of Gerry Adams. “They must persuade us that they have genuinely given up violence for good,” he wrote. “They must see that there is no role for the IRA and its arms.” Gloom dominated the British press. The Good Friday Agreement is “strained to breaking point,” said the Times of London, and several papers gave prominence to remarks by Adams that the agreement had been “torn up” and that there could now be a return to violence by “microgroups” opposed to the agreement.
It was the same story across the Irish Sea. Belfast’s Catholic paper the Irish News led with the failure of the London talks between Blair and Ahern. The Irish Independent of Dublin led on recriminations against Britain by the Irish government, with “senior government sources” accusing British Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson of behaving prematurely and illegally by suspending the Belfast parliament. In its report of President Clinton’s press conference in Washington, D.C., the Irish Times led with Clinton’s refusal to criticize the IRA for pulling out of the decomissioning talks. It quoted the president saying that he knew his refusal to allot blame “is not satisfying to a lot of people who want me to be judgmental about everything. All I can say is that in private I’ve tried to be straightforward and clear with them.” The brightest note was sounded in the Irish News by the incurably optimistic John Hume, the Ulster Social Democrat leader and another Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who said, without any supporting evidence, that “the crisis can be resolved.”
The main story in Europe Thursday was the resignation of Wolfgang Schäuble, the German Christian Democrat Party leader, which of course led all the German papers but also several in other countries. One of these, La Repubblica of Rome, expressed admiration for the speed with which German institutions are dealing with the country’s political corruption crisis. It called on Italians to resist the temptation to be smug about finding that “they too” are corrupt. In London, the Daily Telegraph said “[s]omething is rotten in the state of Germany” and there is a “canker at the heart of the most successful post-war party in Europe.” Britain should be wary, it said in an editorial, of its partners in the European Union trying to re-create the German system on a grander scale, as a federal republic of Europe. The German weekly Neue Revue published an opinion poll showing that between 15 percent and 21 percent of Germans would support a party similar to Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria, and that 79 percent would definitely oppose it.
El País of Madrid led Thursday on a row between Spain and Britain over the leaking of a medical report on Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, to the Spanish press. On Wednesday, two Spanish papers, conservative ABC and El Mundo, published the report which was given by Britain to the governments of Spain and four other European countries on a confidential basis after being ordered to do so by a British court. The report, written by a group of independent British doctors, said that Pinochet is suffering from “extensive brain damage.” Its findings were responsible for British Home Secretary Jack Straw’s recent decision to let the general go home to Chile instead of extraditing him to Spain to face trial for torture and other crimes against humanity. The Spanish government, which doesn’t want him sent to Spain, has been widely accused both at home and abroad of responsibility for the leak, but it has denied the charge. El País said the report was leaked Tuesday night only an hour after it had got into the hands of the Spanish government, “which was responsible to the British courts for its confidentiality.” In an editorial, the paper called the leak a “catastrophic error” by which “Spain has transformed itself into a state which others cannot trust. It could hardly have done worse.”
In Obshchaya Gazeta, a newspaper only published when the freedom of the Russian press is deemed under threat, and which last appeared in 1991 at the time of an attempted coup against President Mikhail Gorbachev, the country’s Union of Journalists took up the case of the disappearance in Chechnya of the Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky. Babitsky, whose reports from Chechnya for the U.S.-funded radio station have infuriated Moscow, was allegedly handed to Chechen rebels by Russian forces Feb. 3 in exchange for several captured Russian soldiers. But Chechen commanders have denied the exchange, giving rise to speculation that he may still be in the hands of the Russian military. In any event, he has not been seen since Russian troops took him into custody in Grozny Jan. 16. In this special edition of Obshchaya Gazeta, the Union of Journalists said what has happened to Babitsky is not “an isolated incident of contemporary life but an effective turning point in the battle for a press which serves society and not the authorities.” The Babitsky case made the front page Thursday of Le Monde of Paris, which reported that acting President Vladimir Putin had ordered his intelligence services to “assure the life and liberty” of the missing journalist.