St. Paddy's day should focus U.S. on Northern Ireland

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: With uncritical, celebratory St. Patrick's Day out of the way, it is useful to look at the current state of play in Irish, British and, potentially, U.S. efforts to put a unified government back on the rails in Northern Ireland.

A visit to Pittsburgh last week by Patricia Lewsley, chairwoman of the Social Democratic Labor Party, provided an opportunity to learn about the situation in the troubled area from a participant in the political process, and, in particular, to examine the U.S. role -- or non-role -- in helping to move talks along.

Northern Ireland's National Assembly collapsed in 2002 and hasn't met since. Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair put pressure on the Northern Ireland political parties to resume talks to restore the National Assembly. Those discussions were set to begin March 8, with hopes of reaching agreement by Good Friday, April 14. The goal was to complete a new accord to parallel the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which had been brokered actively by President Clinton's special envoy, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, and by Clinton himself.

The scheduled March 8 talks were scuttled by the Northern Ireland parties three days prior. The current special envoy for Northern Ireland, Mitchell B. Reiss (a former mid-level State Department official, Republican politician and academic appointed by President Bush), played no effective role in trying to save the talks. Reiss has also apparently lost the confidence of one of the key players, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

Asked what the United States should be doing to keep the heat on the parties to reach agreement, Lewsley, who was on her fourth visit to Pittsburgh and supported by the Ireland Institute of Pittsburgh, said that Washington should be putting pressure on the British and Irish governments to push the Northern Ireland parties to resume talks. Danger lies directly ahead in the form of the so-called ''marching season,'' which starts next month, when extremists in Northern Ireland on both the Protestant and Catholic sides seek to provoke the other by marching through the other's neighborhoods.

Northern Ireland is a dispute in which the United States actually has political influence on the parties involved, without invasions or other unseemly intervention.

Many of its leaders, with the exception of Protestant Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley, were in Washington last week for St. Patrick's Day.

Lewsley and other Northern Ireland leaders seem to believe that agreement on a restoration of the assembly is attainable. Presidential push on the order of that exerted by Clinton might achieve just that.

First step, real involvement by Bush; first intermediate step, replace the unremarkable Reiss by a bigger-name, more forceful, special envoy. How about Clinton or former President George H.W. Bush, or both, with a target date for success, one already iterated by Prime Minister Ahern?

A large number of Americans claim Irish ancestry. Peace and progress in Northern Ireland is an issue that many Americans really care about.