WASHINGTON (AP) -- In personal and direct appeals, President Clinton is urging key players in Northern Ireland to restore the region's coalition government and avoid a renewal of violence. "Whatever the differences," he said, "it's not worth another life."
Clinton spoke to a gala dinner attended by such influential leaders as Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams and David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party before holding five separate meetings today and hosting a St. Patrick's Day reception at the White House.The president told the leaders joining more than 1,000 guests at the annual America Ireland Fund dinner Thursday that he was proud of the supporting role he had played in the peace process, noting that "the cease-fires now are measured in years, not weeks."
But he reminded them that his term in office is fast coming to an end and admitted he is "more burdened by the fact that I have not found an answer to the present stalemate."
"I must confess as your friend that I still do not know the answers," he said. "But I do know life is fleeting, and opportunities come and also go. We have the chance of a lifetime here."
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, one of the leaders meeting with Clinton today, said he is confident of a resolution "as long as people are engaged and focused on the peace process."
Earlier, Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson, who suspended Northern Ireland's coalition government last month to avoid a walkout by Ulster unionists because the Irish Republican Army refused to give up its weapons, said he was "growing impatient."
He used a news conference to chide both sides: "Stop walking away. Stop the silence. Stop the name calling. Stop the blame game," he said. "Get back to serious talks, serious business."
U.S. officials cautioned against expecting any breakthroughs from the meetings in Washington.
But Clinton sought to cast the situation in a positive light as he prepared to welcome Adams and Trimble, along with Ahern; John Hume, the Social Democratic Party leader who shared a Nobel peace prize with Trimble; and Seamus Mallon, who served as deputy first minister of the government.
"The last century began with bloodshed across Ireland, and across the United States and our cities signs that read, 'No Irish Need Apply,"' Clinton said. "This one begins with the best hope for Irish peace in our lifetimes."
Mandelson was meeting in Washington today with Irish Foreign Secretary Brian Cowen. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Ahern plan to meet in Lisbon next week.
Mandelson's decision on Feb. 11 to close down the new coalition government in Northern Ireland came after Trimble vowed to withdraw his unionist party because the IRA had not begun disarming.
Sinn Fein leaders noted that May 22 was the deadline for total disarmament of the IRA and outlawed pro-British groups under the 1998 Good Friday agreement overseen by former Sen. George Mitchell.
Unionists have refused to go back into the coalition government before the IRA starts doing away with its weaponry. But the IRA has never clearly said whether it will disarm. Sinn Fein, eager to regain its two posts within the suspended 12-member administration, argues the IRA might eventually disarm -- but only if unionists allow the four-party coalition to work without obstruction.
Before leaving for Washington, Adams said he considered the May 22 deadline now irrelevant because the government had been shut down. Adams laid blame with those who he said "confused and subverted the entire process" by making demands that were not part of the agreement.
U.S. officials were using their meetings with the Northern Ireland leaders to press for a resumption of the coalition government and to seek flexibility from Trimble, while urging Adams to ensure that the IRA takes concrete steps toward decommissioning.
"The suspension was not caused by any failure of the institutions themselves, nor by any violation of the agreement, but by an internal political crisis focused on the issue of decommissioning," the Friends of Ireland said in a statement Thursday. The executive committee of the group, which is made up of U.S. lawmakers, includes Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
"We encourage the political leaders to bridge this crisis of confidence and secure the reinstatement of the institutions as soon as possible," the group said. "Their absence creates a gap which the enemies of peace can and will exploit."