BY SEAN BRADY
The peace process is in deep crisis, with the political vacuum in the Six Counties steadily growing since the unilateral suspension by the British government a month ago of the Good Friday institutions.
Talks conducted by both governments last week amounted to little or nothing beyond optics, the illusion of movement replacing susbtance.
In a welcome development, Dublin Foreign Affairs Minister Brian Cowen called, over the weekend, for the British to take a more constructive approach to demilitarisation in the Six Counties. Reflecting the manner in which both governments are irritatingly out of step, Cowen's call came just 24 hours after British Direct Ruler Peter Mandelson threw cold water on the propect of real demilitarisation measures, despite the fact that his government is obliged to do so under the terms of the Agreement.
It is clear from all of the recent meetings that the British government is devoid of any idea of how it will defuse the current crisis. Mandelson has been attempting to claim that it is up to others to resolve it despite the fact that was he who brought the institutions down.
The Sinn Féin leadership, including Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Joe Cahill, departed for the United States this week, where they will be holding meetings with President Clinton and other senior political figures. The Sinn Féin message will be of the urgent need for the British government to undo the serious mistake they have made and to reinstate the institutions.
Sinn Féin engaged in a number of protests in various parts of the country over the last weekend under the slogan, `End the British and Unionist Veto - Save the Peace Process', calling for the immediate reinstatement of the Good Friday institutions.
Meanwhile, Gerry Adams has accused SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon of misrepresenting his comment that the 22 May decommissioning target date no longer exists. Adams was speaking at Dublin Airport on Wednesday before leaving for the US:
``What I did was give my opinion - that none of the armed groups was likely to decommission by 22 May. Séamus Mallon has not been very sure-footed on this issue and he misrepresents what I said. I said that we are committed to sorting the issue out, that I have done my best and that I will continue to do my best.
``Seamus Mallon shouldn't be going around echoing a unionist line, when what is required is for him and me and all the parties - but especially Peter Mandelson - is to restore the institutions. That's where Seámus Mallon should be - trying to get this process up and running.
``The process is, as I have said a number of times, in deep crisis because there is no political centre of gravity. That is the first thing that has to be re-established.
``The Good Friday Agreement is in tatters, but it can be saved. Every day that goes past without the institutions being in place or without some aspect of the agreement being implemented is a bad day for the peace process,'' Adams said.
The Sinn Féin President noted that it was also the first anniversary of the murder of human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson. ``Rosemary Nelson's family have called for an international and independent inquiry into her death. We want to support that. This is an issue which requires imagination by the British government. The Finucane family are facing the same difficulty. But there are hundreds others who have been killed as the result of collusion between the British state forces and elements within loyalism.''
Sinn Féin also has hit out this week at moves by the British Labour Party to re-enact the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Party spokesperson on Human Rights and Criminal Justice Mary Nelis said: ``Twenty five years ago I warned the people of Britain that the repressive legislation used in the Six Counties by the RUC, the British Army and the criminal justice sytem would eventually be enacted there.
``In opposition, the current British Lord Chief Justice, Lord Williams, condemned the imprisonment of people on the basis of suspicion. Today, he is pushing forward with legislation that brings Tony Blair's government into sharp conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights which is due to be incorporated into law in October 2000.
``Rather than move forward towards a new dawn for human rights, we are moving backwards. In the streets of the North this legislation, in the hands of an unreformed judiciary and an unchanged RUC, will be used as a weapon against nationalists.''
There seems little chance of any major political breakthrough resulting from talks in Washigton this week and Gerry Adams said that rather it would be an occasion for Sinn Féin to brief people on the ongoing situation, to thank President Clinton and Irish America, and ask them all to continue their efforts to see the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.