. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unionist Furor Hits Opening of Talks

BELFAST -- Face-saving and recrimination reigned Wednesday after George Mitchell, the former U.S. senator, was installed over Protestant objections to oversee Northern Ireland's peace talks.


Mitchell, nominated by the British and Irish governments to lead the politicians' search for compromise, was approved just after midnight following 15 hours of backroom haggling with the largest Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists.


But the Reverend Ian Paisley, leader of the hard-line Democratic Unionists, denounced Mitchell as a "dictator'' to his face and stormed out, vowing not to return to the Stormont negotiating venue east of Belfast.


Mitchell wasted little time in taking charge. At 1 a.m. he instructed the seven party leaders still there to pledge themselves to his six-point renunciation of violence -- the key recommendation of Mitchell's January report into promoting peace talks here. His principles also require a commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organizations.


Paisley returned to the negotiations 10 hours later, explaining that he intended to continue to play his part -- but would not participate in any sessions chaired by Mitchell.


"When I left last night they [other politicians] were shouting, 'Get out!' But we're not out,'' Paisley said. "We'll be coming back to haunt them. This is the battle for the life of this province ... to overturn the dastardly deed that's been done.''


Regardless of his vow not to acknowledge Mitchell's new role, Paisley soon found himself back in the main negotiating room in front of Mitchell. He became the eighth party leader to subscribe to Mitchell's six principles -- though with typical Paisley one-upsmanship announced a seventh personal principle, that Northern Ireland's Protestant majority must "consent'' to any political changes.


Britain and Ireland have already said that any changes will have to be ratified by a referendum within Northern Ireland.


Paisley's partisans put a bold face on their leader's theatrics.


"My father refused to recognize the chair, then he read a prepared statement outlining seven of our own party principles. Then he threw it on the table and left the room treating the whole illegal gathering with contempt,'' said Ian Paisley Jr., son of the Democratic Unionist firebrand.


Other negotiators in the room told a different story, however: of a contrite, polite Paisley referring to Mitchell as "sir" and replying positively after Mitchell read out his six principles.


On the question of why Paisley went before Mitchell when he was supposed to be shunning him, he said: "If it suits us to use the system we'll use it.''


The Protestant parties, all determined to defend Northern Ireland's union with Britain, accuse Mitchell of being biased toward the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party because of past Clinton administration support for Sinn Fein.


The Ulster Unionists said they agreed to accept Mitchell as chairman in exchange for the two governments' dropping their original rules for how the talks and the chairman would operate.


The entire package now will be renegotiated in coming days, the Protestants hope to their common advantage.


But Wednesday's fallout revealed the Protestant camp to be badly divided between the pragmatic Ulster Unionists and dogmatic Paisleyites. Loathing was mutual.