Historic Promise of Peace for N. Ireland
By T. R. Reid
After 21 months of talks and one final marathon 32-hour session, Northern Ireland's political leaders reached a historic agreement here today on a new form of government for the embattled province, holding out the promise of a lasting peace among sectarian groups that have waged terrorist warfare for nearly 30 years.
The settlement plan would restore self-rule to Northern Ireland for the first time in 26 years and create new institutions designed to give minority Catholics a greater voice while meeting Protestant demands that the province remain a part of Britain.
The plan will be presented on May 22 to voters in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Opinion polls suggest that a strong public yearning for peace in the streets will produce clear majorities in favor of the plan.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern -- so tired and so happy at the end of the all-night negotiating session that they didn't seem to notice the hailstorm pelting their final triumphant handshake -- had been on hand since Wednesday to keep wavering parties in the room.
"In the past few days, the irresistible force -- the political will -- has met the immovable object -- the legacy of the past -- and we have moved it," Blair declared.
The outcome of the tortuous talks -- which often bogged down on the tiniest of details -- was uncertain until the end as the players kept negotiating past a midnight Thursday deadline, through the night and into the morning. A last-minute key participant was President Clinton, who, at Blair's request, placed calls to various political leaders through the pre-dawn hours today to encourage them to press on toward agreement.
Clinton struck a solemn tone in a brief appearance in the Oval Office after the agreement was announced. "After a 30-year winter of sectarian violence, Northern Ireland today has the promise of a springtime of peace," he told reporters. John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, Northern Ireland's largest Catholic political party, said he had urged Clinton to visit Ireland and Northern Ireland during the campaigning for the May referendums. Clinton is scheduled to be in Britain in May for the annual Group of Eight summit of industrial democracies and Russia.
The accord held out the prospect of ending one of Europe's longest and most intractable conflicts. More than 3,200 people have been killed in the sectarian struggle since 1969 in this British province of 1.6 million people. On one side are the "unionists" -- primarily Protestants -- who want Northern Ireland to retain its political tie to Britain. On the other are "nationalists" -- mainly Catholic -- who want to unite with the Republic of Ireland to the south in a single Irish nation.
Weary from lack of sleep but euphoric at what they had accomplished, several of the participants in the negotiations said it was no accident that the deal came on Good Friday. Indeed, the agreement came on very holy days for both Christians and Jews, Good Friday and Passover.
"There's a symbolism about Easter, and every Irishman knows that," said Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party and a delegate at the talks. "The old Northern Ireland has died, and now, on Easter weekend, it is ready to rise again."
No one seemed more relieved at the outcome than the talks' chairman, former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell, who told the participants, "I have been in politics for 30 years, and never have I felt this sense of gratification and responsibility and gratitude that I feel today."
For all that, there are some cautionary aspects to the settlement. Northern Ireland is so fractured politically that no party got more than 30 percent of the vote in the 1996 election choosing delegates to these talks. Of the 10 parties that won seats at the table, two militant Protestant parties walked out, denouncing the very notion of a settlement.
One key delegate from the Ulster Unionist Party, the largest Protestant faction, walked out at the final moments today and refused to take part in the closing session of the talks. David Trimble, the party's leader, endorsed the agreement, but the walkout might portend a split in the party.
The nationalist party Sinn Fein, the legal political arm of the Irish Republican Army, one of the oldest of the street armies here, took part in today's closing session but failed to endorse the agreement outright. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said only "it is time to reflect" because "much more needs to be done." He said he will present the agreement to the Sinn Fein leadership.
There was also the paradoxical concern that today's agreement on peace might spark new acts of violence. Fringe militant groups on both sides, some with only a few dozen members, have been staging explosions and murders in recent weeks, and there was fear those activities might increase in protest of the deal.
The agreement has three basic "strands," each involving major changes from the status quo.
Strand One involves a new governmental structure for Northern Ireland -- the biggest political change here since 1921, when the island was divided into an independent nation to the south and a British province in the northeast.
The current system of government by a British cabinet agency in London -- imposed in 1972 when Britain assumed direct rule of the province -- would be replaced with a locally elected Northern Ireland Assembly and a local cabinet endowed with executive powers.
The blueprint for this new government includes some provisions that might seem unnecessary in other democracies, including a requirement that cabinet members must agree not to use violence to achieve their political goals.
Strand Two concerns relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The plan sets up a "North/South Ministerial Council" to coordinate various governmental activities between Belfast and Dublin. Much of the detail here was left vague because specifics on this touchy point might have killed any chance for a deal.
Strand Three involves relations between Northern Ireland and Britain. A "Council of the Isles" would be created to coordinate activities across the Irish Sea.
The plan calls for police and courts in the province to remain under British control, at least for the time being. It calls for police this June to begin the delicate, and potentially dangerous, job of disarming the sectarian street armies that reportedly have accumulated large arsenals of explosives, guns and ammunition.
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