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  British, Irish Set Peace Plan for N. Ireland

By Fred Barbash
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 23, 1995; Page A01

BELFAST, FEB. 22 -- Britain and Ireland today presented the divided people of Northern Ireland with an ambitious plan for permanent peace that would completely reconstruct politics and government here.

The long-awaited package of proposals -- which faces difficult hurdles and strong objections -- would create a new elected legislative assembly for Northern Ireland with built-in mechanisms to prevent the majority Protestant population from dominating the Catholic minority.

It would, for the first time, allow the neighboring Republic of Ireland to become formally involved in important matters of government in Northern Ireland by means of a new cross-border body with executive powers in areas such as the environment and economic development. This "Irish dimension" is the most objectionable part of the plan to Northern Ireland's Protestants, many of whom see it as the beginning of the road to a unified Ireland.

In return for Dublin's involvement, Irish Prime Minister John Bruton pledged to initiate the requisite constitutional change to modify Dublin's claim of absolute jurisdiction over the entire island, while British Prime Minister John Major promised Britain would not impede reunification of Ireland -- and the end of British control here -- should it ever be desired by the majority of Northern Ireland's people.

Nothing in the plan, both leaders said, is inviolate. Nothing, they said, would be implemented before negotiations with the political leadership of Northern Ireland, agreement of the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum and approval by the British Parliament. Both are counting on these promises of "consent" and "self-determination" to keep the peace process alive.

In the past 25 years, sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants has claimed more than 3,000 lives. Belfast and the countryside have been occupied by thousands of British troops, and cities on the British mainland have been the targets of bombings and other attacks by nationalists seeking an end to British rule in Ulster.

Major and Bruton each conceded that the ultimate goals of many of the leaders of both communities are irreconcilable. Their "New Framework for Agreement," they said, must rest on both sides settling for a middle ground that offers, if nothing else, greater stability and security to each.

Of the numerous peace plans put forward here over the past 40 years, this is the most detailed and ambitious. It is also the first in recent years to be presented in an atmosphere of relative tranquillity, a fact officials hope will give it a greater chance for success than its predecessors.

Initial reaction from Protestants was not encouraging. Protestant demonstrators burned copies of the document for the benefit of television cameras. Their political leaders described it as an "eviction notice" from the United Kingdom, a "blueprint for a United Ireland," in the words of Ken Maginnis, a member of Parliament from the Ulster Unionist Party. They took little comfort from Bruton's promises of constitutional change, but did not say they would withdraw from the peace process, as they have when confronted with other plans.

Major, whose statement was televised throughout Northern Ireland and distributed widely along with the proposals, begged Northern Irelanders to give the plan a chance. "I know that many people will be worried, perhaps some even pessimistic, about the future," he said. "But as we look at the hurdles ahead, let us also consider where we have come from. The dialogue of the deaf has ended. . . . We have had six months of peace. Prosperity and normal life are returning to Northern Ireland."

"More gains can lie ahead if we have the courage to conduct ourselves with patience, with foresight and with consideration," Major added.

Catholic nationalist leaders, such as Gerry Adams, head of the Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, were pleased, calling the proposals a useful basis for further negotiations. "I do believe the climate is favorable for talks," Adams said.

Major said he had no timetable for further action. "We don't want to rush things along," he said.

Today's proposals are the result of 18 months of talks between Ireland and Britain, aimed at finding a formula to end 25 years of deadly violence between Catholics and Protestants -- interrupted only by the past six months of peace since paramilitaries on both sides declared a cease-fire.

The two sides are divided by radically different aspirations and by generations of accumulated grievances. Catholic nationalists, who consider themselves victims of gross discrimination in housing, employment and policing, favor reunification with Ireland.

Protestant unionists, who wish to remain part of the United Kingdom, feel equally victimized by years of IRA terrorism.

Acknowledging "a fundamental absence of consensus," today's joint British-Irish statement noted "deep divisions between the members of the two main traditions living there over their respective senses of identity and allegiance. . . . However, the two governments also recognize that the large majority of people, in both parts of Ireland, are at one in their commitment to the democratic process and in their desire to resolve political differences by peaceful means."

Northern Ireland has been ruled directly from London since the early 1970s, when a "home rule" assembly was suspended by Britain amid sectarian rioting and killing. Catholics have been suspicious of new legislative plans, contending they would be simply another tool for Protestant domination.

Major's proposed legislative assembly, described in a separate document, would have limited powers. Taxing and security policy would still be made in London. But, as envisioned, it would reintroduce democratic dialogue to Northern Ireland.

It would be heavily "checked and balanced" by provisions to protect minority rights. "Contentious legislation," for example, would have to win the approval of a super-majority of the elected representatives, 65 to 75 percent, he suggested. Currently, Protestants make up roughly 60 percent of the population and Catholics 40 percent.

There would be no president or prime minister in the assembly. A panel of three "senior" elected officeholders would form a kind of joint presidency, with authority to act as a check on the legislative process -- particularly in matters of civil rights -- and a requirement of unanimity to take action.

The "Irish dimension," described in the joint framework document, was also a concession to Catholic nationalists. It would take the form of a new cross-border body, a "North-South" institution, composed of elected leaders of the Northern Ireland assembly and the Parliament of Ireland. It would exercise significant executive powers in areas such as the environment, tourism and economic and cultural development, making decisions on its own. In more sensitive areas, such as education and health, it would serve more of a harmonizing function.

While the Major-Bruton proposal makes this body "accountable" to the Northern Ireland assembly, it would be created by the British Parliament and, by law, service on it would be a "duty" of Northern Ireland officials.

Ireland and Northern Ireland currently cooperate on a variety of matters of mutual interest. But no such formal institution exists.

Major spent much of the day trying to reassure Northern Ireland's unionists.

"So long as the people of Northern Ireland wish to remain part of the United Kingdom, they will remain part of the United Kingdom," he repeated this afternoon after returning to the House of Commons, where he was confronted by bitter unionist members of Parliament.

Bruton, speaking after the meeting here this morning, said: "The proposals will challenge the two traditions on this island, but it will do so in an even-handed way. Neither tradition need fear its contents."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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