Once again, there are signs of progress toward the establishment of a sustainable local government in Northern Ireland. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Mr. Bernie Ahern earlier this month announced that they had worked out arrangements yet again to share power between the province’s Protestants and Catholics. Northern Ireland’s political parties have until Nov. 10 to agree to the proposal. Key obstacles remain, but the prospects are surprisingly good: Both sides now appear to understand that change is afoot and they both will have to compromise to achieve their goals.
In 1998, Britain and Ireland concluded the Good Friday accords, which established a framework to end three decades of bloody civil war that claimed more than 3,600 lives in Northern Ireland. The accords set up a government in Belfast in which power would be shared by Protestants and Catholics. The accords called for the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the militant Catholic organization devoted to uniting Ireland, to abandon its quest for a military solution to the island’s division; an independent monitoring commission would see that the IRA would put its extensive military arsenal beyond use, thereby permitting Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, to participate in the government.
The peace process lurched forward as the two sides built trust and began to work together. Although the majority of Northern Irish citizens welcomed the deal, hardliners on both sides rejected the compromises involved. A key opponent was the Rev. Ian Paisley, a leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, who has refused any agreement that would loosen the bonds between Britain and Belfast or bring Catholics into the government. Fortunately, the majority of voters gravitated toward the center, backing the accords and providing political support for parties that backed peace over continued fighting.
The peace process was troubled. Unsurprisingly, confidence was hard to come by. The local assembly established by the Good Friday process eventually collapsed in October 2002, after revelations that the IRA had been spying on the new government. The British abolished local rule. Disillusioned, voters in Northern Ireland turned away from the center, backing Sinn Fein and Mr. Paisley’s DUP in subsequent elections. With the hardliners empowered, the peace process sputtered and ground to a halt.
Conscious that the clock was ticking on his own term in office, Mr. Blair stepped up efforts to resuscitate the peace process. Three days of intensive talks with the key players yielded the St. Andrew’s Agreement, named after the Scottish resort where they met. The agreement calls for the Northern Irish parties to accept the proposal by Nov. 10; if that does not happen by Nov. 24, London will retake full control of the province and its governance.
If the parties agree, they will then nominate two leaders of the Northern Irish assembly — most likely to be Mr. Paisley as head and Mr. Martin McGuinness, number two in Sinn Fein, as his deputy. They would take full power March 26 after assessing both sides’ commitment to the new peace process. Northern Ireland’s voters would also have to endorse the proposal at some point.
Why is progress possible now? First, credit Mr. Blair, who is now focused on his legacy, of which peace in Northern Ireland is a real accomplishment. Second, the Independent Monitoring Commission has confirmed in its most recent report that the IRA has abandoned terrorism and is cracking down on crime. Third, the threat of a permanent suspension of the local assembly and the loss of power and privileges held by Northern Irish politicians has pushed them to compromise.
That does not mean the peace process is a done deal. Two key issues remain, one for each side. Catholics and Sinn Fein have to endorse Northern Ireland’s police force, which is still predominately Protestant and has been an instrument of repression. Catholics have demanded reform so that the police better protect their interests. The assumption of full control of the police by the local authority, ruled by both parties, is one way to ensure that Catholic interests are protected; the St. Andrews agreement envisions that happening by March 2008.
The other problem is fundamental: The DUP has to agree to work with Sinn Fein in a government. For years, Mr. Paisley has refused to collaborate with “terrorists” and has demanded additional proof from Sinn Fein that it has abandoned the military option. The Independent Monitoring Commission report makes that case easier to make; Sinn Fein’s agreement on the police will demonstrate respect for the rule of law.
The ill-will will not be eliminated overnight. Building trust and confidence among the key players in Northern Ireland will take years, not just months. The St. Andrews agreement provides a real chance for the people of Northern Ireland to resume their march toward peace. Their politicians should seize the moment.
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