This year, British and Irish people alike are feeling a good deal more somber than they did on Good Friday last year. Then, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland found common ground for a peace agreement designed to end 30 years of sectarian violence that had claimed more than 3,200 lives. Today, that hard-won peace is foundering, buffeted by the suspicions and fears created by more than a quarter-century of fighting. Last May’s historic vote for peace suggested that history need not triumph over hope. A renewed political offensive — and courage from Northern Irish leaders — can put the peace process back on track.
The original agreement was artful in its diplomacy. Mindful of the sensitivities attached to critical issues, its language was deliberately vague. ‘Fudge’ is an apt description for some of the key provisions. For example, the accord called for the devolution of power from Britain to a new Northern Irish Cabinet around the time that Irish Republicans put some arms “beyond use, on a voluntary basis.” That timetable is clearly open to interpretation. What is clear is that the agreement does not call for actual decommissioning before May 22, 2000. Still, Protestants have demanded a token gesture by the Catholics. Thus far, that has proven to be beyond the ability of Catholic politicians such as Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to provide.
Republicans assert that the failure to make even that gesture disqualifies the Catholics from taking their seats in the new Cabinet. Mr. Adams counters that his group’s electoral strength entitles it to its seats, no matter what. He also concedes that he cannot deliver on the demand to turn over arms, insisting that his party does not speak for the Irish Republican Army. But Mr. Adams also says that he supports the principle of disarmament.
Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Mr. Bertie Ahern, joined negotiations earlier this week to break the deadlock. But after four days of intense consultations, the best they could do was adjourn the talks for a two-week “pause for reflection” and release the outline of a deal-in-progress.
A pause is needed to build momentum. It is also laden with peril. First, the suspension of negotiations on the first anniversary of the accord gives — at the very least — the impression of failure. Second, the Easter holidays are a tension-filled period, marked by speeches, anniversaries and parades. All will be certain to arouse passions at a time when the real priority should be on dampening them. Third, there has been a recent upsurge in violence in Northern Ireland. The attacks have come from both sides of the sectarian divide, but they share one common feature: unyielding opposition to peace. The “pause for reflection” may embolden the perpetrators to step up their attacks on the accord.
Their ambition is to fill in the blanks in the Good Friday accord with their own terms. Such is the danger of ambiguity. And indeed, the imprecision of the original agreement courts that risk, even though it has won praise from peace advocates and infuriated hardliners. But the simple truth is that fudge is what Northern Ireland needs, at least for a while longer.
Trust between the two sides is still fragile — where it exists. The ambiguities of the original agreement were needed to give supporters of the peace process the room to go forward, to continue discussions and build the confidence that would serve as the foundation of an enduring peace agreement. Clearly, confidence is not yet sufficient to fill in the blanks with details.
Extremist violence continues, eroding hopes that the lawlessness of the past would end. The murder of a prominent Catholic human-rights lawyer last month reawakened Republican fears that Northern Ireland’s police forces cannot be trusted to be impartial. In this environment, it is utterly unrealistic to expect the Catholics to give up their weapons.
Protestants counter that they live in fear, too. They point to the release of IRA prisoners as proof that the Good Friday accord has brought concrete benefits to the Republican cause, and it is time for Republicans to reciprocate. That Loyalist prisoners have also been released undercuts the strength of their argument.
The willingness of both sides to point fingers and keep score only highlights the lack of trust between the two parties. More talk, more negotiations and more time together is needed before Northern Ireland will be truly ready for peace. There are signs of progress. By all accounts, the meetings between the two sides are more cordial than before. Such are the benefits of chewing away at fudge.
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