Both Clinton and St Patrick fail to bring North leaders together


So did the combined influences of the most powerful leader in the world and St Patrick bring Ireland after the main players made their pilgrimage to Washington? The President cannot be faulted for his efforts as he made sure of meeting all the leaders over a frenetic 30 hours as they stepped in and out of the White House.

Washington has never seen anything like this as an American President cajoled and persuaded a procession of visitors. As a hungry President finally got away to change his shirt for the reception for 700 guests, Hillary Clinton waited for some profound remark from him about Northern Ireland. But as the smells of the boxty and colcannon from the buffet hit him, he said simply "this looks great food".

As his guests tucked in, the bagpipers played, Irish dancers performed and the harpist strummed, some Celtic magic was in the air of the beautiful mansion designed by James Hoban of Kilkenny. But there was no sure sign that the magic would be still working as the politicians sat down to their endless talks next Monday in the drab surroundings of Stormont that Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams described to a curious American journalist yesterday as "the Castlereagh interrogation centre with coffee".

Gerry Adams and David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, came and went without the meeting that President Clinton wanted them to have. Just about everybody met everybody else in these hectic days except the two men who may yet decide if the peace talks succeed or fail.

The Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, invoked the "vision and the leadership of the United Irishmen" of 1798 and predicted "come what may, we will have peace". And come what may, two key figures in recent years, Senator George Mitchell and Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, are departing the peace talks stage later this year.

The word was spread at the White House reception and the party afterwards at the Irish Embassy that David Trimble had heard "straight talking" from President Clinton on the pressing need for him to sit down with Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein. "Trimble still won't engage," was the word around the buffet tables from the Irish-American politicians who have never warmed to him anyhow. But "Adams had a very good meeting with Clinton".

However, John Taylor, deputy UUP leader, had his version of non-engagement. "John Hume won't engage," he confided to anyone who would listen. "He just sits there at the talks and says nothing. He lets Seamus Mallon do all the talking." David Trimble challenged the version that he had come under heavy American pressure to end the stand-off with Sinn Fein. He told The Irish Times yesterday that "Yes, the President did raise this question".

"We discussed that and he understands our position. He may not like our position but there was no pressure." Mr Trimble explained that he would have a private meeting with Mr Adams if certain conditions are met, including Sinn Fein acceptance of "consent".

Mr Adams over breakfast said he had been told before meeting the President that "there might be arm-twisting but it was a very relaxed discussion". Mr Adams speculated how in the coming weeks, President Clinton "could broker a deal" but then backed off to say it would not be him brokering a deal but "facilitating and nudging". No doubt a sigh of relief at the White House at that.

As far as the Sinn Fein leader is concerned, a failure of the Washington merry-go-round of these days was that Mr Trimble ignored the urging of President Clinton that they should meet.

At the Speaker's lunch on Capitol Hill, the President recalled pointedly how in the Middle East talks he persuaded the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to go away into a room and draw lines on a map and it worked. At the White House reception, Mr Clinton even wished for all the negotiators to get "a three-day cold and solve their problems when quarantined in the Green Room".

It is dismaying for the US that in the final stage of the peace talks, when all-out efforts should be made to seize "the chance of a lifetime for peace in Ireland", Sinn Fein and the unionists will not even meet.

As the President put it: "The party leaders must lead and leading means looking forward. And it means being strong enough to make principled compromise." But as the unionists read it, Sinn Fein will not make the compromises necessary for an agreement, so it will have to be fashioned without the republicans. Thus, the UUP, the SDLP, Alliance and one or both of the loyalist parties will produce the consensus agreement which will go to referendum. But again, for the unionists, this plan is being threatened by the enigmatic John Hume, who they fear will not abandon Sinn Fein at the negotiating table he fought so hard to get it to.

Mr Trimble is reported to have stunned his US interlocutors by criticising Mr Hume's tactics. One influential US senator gasped when he heard this. "My God, that's like having a go at St Francis of Assisi." There would be no sympathy in the White House for unionist complaints about John Hume.

"Inclusivity with knobs on", as the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Dr Mo Mowlam, put it. But it may yet happen that an agreement is signed without Sinn Fein, she conceded, but a lot would depend on whether it was rejection or acquiescence.

But there was also recognition that Mr Trimble faces a party conference on Saturday and what he says and does before and after this event may not be the same thing. So the President is going to have to wait and see if his dream of a lasting peace agreement in Northern Ireland will come to pass with his friendly urging and the carrot of increased US investment.

If it does happen, he promised, next year's St Patrick's Day celebrations at the White House could be "the greatest in history".