The people of Northern Ireland have made clear their longing for peace. They resolutely endorsed the Good Friday accords signed last year and have stood behind them. The embattled province’s politicians have kept pace — sometimes grudgingly. Last week, Northern Ireland took another historic step forward by forming a Cabinet that included both Catholics and Protestants. The hatreds and suspicions created by the 30 years of “Troubles” that claimed more than 3,500 lives remain, but the new power-sharing government offers the first real chance to bring the two sides together and build a common future.
The 12-member Cabinet is evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics, and includes moderates and hardliners from both sides. Its representatives, drawn from the 108-seat National Assembly, now face the daunting task of governing the war-torn province.
The inaugural meeting, presided over by First Minister David Trimble, the head of the Ulster Unionists, the major Protestant party, was followed by a carefully choreographed sequence of events. At the stroke of midnight Thursday morning, power was formally devolved to the new Belfast Parliament following the assent of Queen Elizabeth II. The Irish Republic then amended two articles of its constitution to renounce its territorial claims over the six counties that make up Northern Ireland.
Those two steps were formalities. Crucial to the process was a statement by the Irish Republican Army that it would honor its commitment and appoint a go-between to deal with Gen. John de Chastelain, the Canadian charged with overseeing the “decommissioning,” or disposal of weapons held by the various guerrilla groups in Northern Ireland. Under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, those weapons are to be handed over next May. Despite that clear deadline, the peace process foundered five months ago when the Ulster Unionists refused to take part in the government unless the IRA disarmed first. A late agreement was reached when the IRA promised to enter into disarmament negotiations.
Governing will not be easy. Ill-will lingers. Two members of the hardline Protestant Democratic Unionist Party have refused to sit in the same room with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA. The appointment of Mr. Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein’s No. 2 and an alleged former gunman, as education minister was greeted with boos and hisses.
Mr. Trimble’s party also dampened the celebrations when it said it would withhold final approval of the Good Friday agreement until February, when it expected to see progress on decommissioning, a move that drew an angry response from the IRA. In 1974, a previous proposal to devolve power to the Northern Irish was shelved after the Protestants failed to reach agreement among themselves.
In addition, there is a more mundane problem: a simple lack of skills. The British government has governed Northern Ireland since the eruption of warfare in 1972. None of the politicians in the province — Protestant or Catholic — have any real administrative experience. While the people of Northern Ireland have chosen peace, they also expect material returns. If the new government cannot deliver, then support for self-governance, and the Good Friday accord, could crumble.
External support will be crucial to the new government’s success. Thus far, London, Dublin and Washington have been unstinting in their efforts to help. The appointment of Mr. Peter Mandelson as minister for Northern Ireland indicates that the province will remain a priority for British Prime Minister Tony Blair. U.S. President Bill Clinton has pledged his continuing support as well.
Ultimately, however, the lack of trust must be eliminated. As Mr. Edward Gaffney explains in his article on this page, that means that the past must be faced squarely by all parties. The British government must re-examine the Bloody Sunday massacre and push — along with the new Northern Irish executive — for reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The Protestants must acknowledge that they, too, have a dark legacy, and must rein in the men in their ranks who prefer violence to peace. Finally, the IRA must also contribute. While the Good Friday agreement only requires decommissioning in May, the group does itself no good — and does immeasurable harm — by refusing to make at least a token gesture of good faith and turn over some weapons. Such an act would pay huge dividends for Northern Ireland’s future.
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