BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Saying that failure would be "unforgivable," former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell prepared yesterday to begin a rescue effort to stop the disintegration of the Northern Ireland peace agreement that he helped broker.
Relations between the Protestant and Catholic sides in the conflict have deteriorated to their worst level since the accord was signed in April 1998, making only a memory of the hope and euphoria that had tentatively emerged in this British province.
David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, the largest Protestant party, said he is "not optimistic" about the outcome of the mission by Mitchell to renew the peace effort.
He said that though his party members would take part in a formal review of the accord, they would refuse to speak directly to members of Sinn Fein, the political ally of the Irish Republican Army.
A spokesman for Sinn Fein said that his party's members had a "cynical view" of the Ulster Unionists' desire for peace.
The Unionists' decision to end communication with the Catholic delegation, he said, "will make attempts to achieve a breakthrough in the crisis all the more difficult."
Mitchell said in remarks televised yesterday from London: "It is unthinkable to me that after having reached agreement, the parties who support the agreement will permit it to fail. That would be a terrible tragedy, an irony, and I think it would be unforgivable."
Implementation of the accord stopped suddenly in July, when the Ulster Unionists refused to allow a start-up of the Northern Ireland Assembly without greater assurances that the IRA would give up its weapons.
It was after that breakdown that the British and Irish governments, the sponsors of the peace move, turned to Mitchell, the only person in the long, insult-ridden process to have maintained the trust of all parties.
Regardless of initial progress Mitchell can make, tensions are likely to rise further with the publication Thursday of a long-awaited report on Northern Ireland's police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
Reforming the overwhelmingly Protestant force is perhaps the most divisive issue in shaping Northern Ireland's future.
Pub Date: 9/06/99