COMMENTARY: Can Clinton pull off an Irish miracle?

c. 1999 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at http://www.agreeley.com or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)aol.com.)

UNDATED _ President Clinton is supposed to work a miracle on St. Patrick's day _ a miracle which will make that good saint's alleged expulsion of the snakes from Ireland look small by comparison. He is supposed to produce, almost out of thin air, the final solution to three quarters of a millennium's conflict in Ireland.

Everything is in place for the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement between the Unionists (Protestants) and the Nationalists (Catholics) in the North of Ireland: a parliament representing both communities; an executive in which power is shared; cross-border political bodies; an agreement between Ireland and England; and a body which will have representatives of the various governments in the British Isles _ the two Irelands, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Mann and Britain (the so-called Parliament of the Isles).

However, the whole delicate structure could fall apart over the issue of the disarming ("de-commissioning") of the weapons of the paramilitary forces, most notably the IRA.

David Trimble, the"First Minister"of the new executive, has said that the Sinn Fein _ the political wing of the IRA _ will not be permitted its rightful two seats in the 10-member executive unless the IRA begins to lay down its arms. The"lads"adamantly refuse to do so.

Trimble has no legal ground for this refusal. There was nothing in the Good Friday agreement about when the de-commissioning had to start, only that it must be finished within two years. He has endangered the whole agreement by his stubborn insistence on adding a new condition.

However, there are excellent political and moral reasons for the IRA to begin disarming. Having made weapons an important symbol, Trimble cannot sustain majority support in the Protestant community for the new order unless he can point to the first steps toward disarming. The IRA should recognize this and make a gesture. However, it would appear there is still a solid core of"hard men"who refuse to make even a slight gesture toward the Protestants.

If the Good Friday agreement comes apart everyone will blame the IRA and not without some reason.

The issue, as Gerry Adams of the Sinn Fein points out repeatedly, is entirely symbolic. The IRA could turn over its guns and explosives tomorrow and the next day replace everything from the international munitions market. But symbols are terribly important in Ireland, perhaps because it is the country where they invented symbols.

To the Protestants the handing in of weapons to an international monitoring group means the"lads"are willing to admit they were an illegal terrorist group. However, the IRA argues it is a legitimate army engaged in a legitimate revolution, that it has not lost the war, and that it is not willing to accept the illusion that it has.

Everyone wants a deal. Indeed, English and Irish officials, members of the shadow government in the North, and well-intentioned folks on both sides, have been flitting around London and Belfast and Dublin desperately seeking a compromise. Both Trimble and the"lads"refuse to budge. There is considerable bluffing on both sides as the fateful, and often postponed, final day draws near. Would the Canadian general who heads the de-commissioning group please find a solution? Would British prime minister Tony Blair please come up with an answer? Would someone, anyone, please devise a compromise?

March 10 was the target date. Now the plan is to postpone the day of reckoning to April 2. The Irish papers make it clear everyone expects that, in fact, on March 17 a happy compromise will emerge _ from the White House.

Would Bill Clinton please find that happy compromise while all the major players are in Washington to celebrate the festival of a British saint with a Roman name who brought Christianity to Ireland?

Such confidence in the power and the prestige of the American presidency is edifying. You can't work out a problem yourself, you invoke him. Why not? What can he propose that both sides will accept? Perhaps it would be something like the IRA making a promise to him that they will never use the guns again and that they will hand over a few weapons to his representatives. A source of mine who understands how the minds of the"lads"work, has suggested that such a deal might have some appeal. They won't give their weapons to the British or the government in Dublin or David Trimble. But to Bill Clinton? Perhaps that's a neat way out.

Good luck on St. Patrick's Day, Mr. President! You'll need it. Indeed, you'll need the luck of the Irish and a lot of it.

DEA END GREELEY