Peace Plan for Northern Ireland
By Eugene Robinson
LONDON, DEC. 15 -- The British and Irish governments agreed today on a "framework for peace" in Northern Ireland, offering the Irish Republican Army a seat at the bargaining table within three months if it pledges to end its campaign of violence.
In a seven-page "joint declaration," British Prime Minister John Major and Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds agreed that Britain will not block Northern Ireland from leaving the United Kingdom and joining the Irish Republic, but that it will be up to the people of Northern Ireland themselves to decide on such a step.
If peace talks lead to an eventual settlement, the Irish government will ask voters to change the articles of the Irish constitution that lay territorial claim to Northern Ireland, the two leaders agreed.
The declaration -- the latest major development in a tentative, on-again, off-again peace process that began last February -- was timed to encourage the IRA to transform its traditional Christmas cease-fire, which normally lasts a few days, into a permanent cessation of violence.
"I cannot promise you today that the joint declaration will bring peace. That does not lie within my hands," Major said at a news conference. "But those who do not respond to it will show that they prefer violence for its own sake, because they are now offered a democratic alternative."
Reynolds, who met with Major at 10 Downing Street this morning to put the finishing touches on the declaration, said that it "offers a framework for lasting peace. . . . We hope this historic opportunity for peace will be taken."
The declaration was hailed as the most significant step taken by the two governments on Northern Ireland since the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which for the first time recognized that the Irish Republic has a consultative role in some matters concerning the northern Irish province of Ulster.
Essentially, the document restates positions that both governments have already taken. "I couldn't really point to anything and say, 'That is new,' " an aide to Major said.
But the explicit way in which some of positions are stated, and the emphasis put on some, might give encouragement to both sides to come together and chart a peaceful future for the province.
One high-ranking leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA's legal political arm, told interviewers the statement was being received with "disappointment" but added that the document would require further study.
At the other extreme, Ian Paisley, head of the Democratic Unionist Party, accused Major of betraying the loyalists -- a majority in Northern Ireland -- who want to remain part of Britain. "You have sold Ulster to buy off the fiendish republican scum," Paisley said. "This is an act of treachery."
But moderates on both sides cautiously welcomed the initiative by the two prime ministers, who are gambling that while politicians may fulminate, people on both sides of the Irish Sea are weary of the long-running war.
For 25 years, the IRA has waged a violent guerrilla campaign to oust the British from Northern Ireland. The IRA is opposed by equally violent loyalist paramilitary groups, such as the Ulster Freedom Fighters. The republicans are mostly Catholic, the loyalists mostly Protestant. The violence on both sides has taken more than 3,000 lives.
Last February, the British government began using intermediaries to hold secret talks with the IRA. After fits and starts that involved a separate set of unofficial secret peace talks, Irish government pique when the British-IRA contacts were disclosed, and a dispute between Britain and the IRA over just who said what to whom, Major and Reynolds decided there was still a chance to begin a fruitful peace process and vowed to produce before Christmas a road map to peace.
It took a meeting in Dublin, another brief one in Brussels and further talks this morning to produce the joint declaration, which is nothing if not comprehensive.
Britain states in the document that it has "no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland" and agrees that it would accept "a united Ireland achieved by peaceful means" if a majority of the people of Ulster indicate they want to break away and join with the Irish Republic to the south.
The key sentence designed to extend an olive branch to the republican side is the following:
"The British government agrees that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish."
That complex wording is designed to appeal to republicans who want an all-island referendum to decide the future of the province, while not reneging on Britain's long-stated promise that any change has to have the consent of a majority of the people in Northern Ireland. The majority in the north is Protestant and loyalist, and would almost certainly vote to remain part of Britain.
Ireland, in a concession to the loyalists, agrees that while it seeks a united Ireland, "no Northern Unionist should ever have to fear in future that this ideal will be pursued either by threat or coercion."
Reynolds goes on to promise that "in the event of an overall settlement," his government will propose changing elements of the Irish constitution "which are deeply resented by Northern Unionists" -- meaning Articles 2 and 3, which lay claim to Ulster as part of the republic's national territory. Ireland was partitioned in 1921.
Reynolds also said the Irish government would consider changing "any elements in the democratic life and organization of the Irish state" that unionists see as a "real and substantial threat to their way of life and ethos." That was read as a hint that Ireland might reexamine the influence of Catholic Church doctrine over matters such as divorce and birth control, if that would promote eventual union.
While the document does not spell out a timetable, Major said that if the IRA renounces violence, its legal political arm, Sinn Fein, will be invited to preliminary discussions -- an aide called them "talks about talks" -- within three months. Major spoke of a public renunciation, although the British government told the IRA through secret channels earlier this year that an unannounced permanent cease-fire would suffice.
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