The latest news from Belfast and London is heartening. Last Saturday the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) voted to end its boycott of the peace process known as the Belfast Agreement. On Tuesday the new Northern Ireland Assembly met to form a government, appointing to the cabinet ministers who had previously been adversaries on the opposite end of gun barrels. Now the British Parliament has enacted legislation transferring power over Northern Ireland to the new body.
President Clinton--who did more to advance the cause of peace in Ireland than any other president of this century--stated: "I welcome this progress and urge all parties to continue working together on building the foundations for lasting peace."
This good news was a long time in coming. Disarmament--known in Ireland as "decommissioning"--was not only one of the stickiest issues during the intense negotiations leading up to the Belfast Agreement. It also proved to be the cause of a stalemate that kept the accord from being implemented until now.
On its face the UUP's refusal to participate in the assembly until the IRA agreed to surrender at least some of its weapons is understandable. No political order is viable if a contending party can undermine the democratic process by threatening recurring violence.
But there were two problems with the Unionists' demand. First, the Belfast Agreement had dealt with this issue, calling for decommissioning by May 2000. The shifting of the goalposts sustained an attitude of mistrust that degenerated into catcalls and stalemate.
Second, the Unionists' call for the surrender of IRA weapons would have been more powerful if their leader, David Trimble, had insisted on the same standard for all parties in the conflict. The IRA is not the only group that has perpetrated atrocities over the past three decades, nor is it the only paramilitary organization with weapons at its disposal.
Trimble should keep up the pressure on the republicans to make good on their promise to turn in their weapons. But if the new first minister of Northern Ireland looks longer and harder at the dirty business of assassination within his own community, he might emerge more strongly on the crucial questions of mutual disarmament, the disengagement of the British Army and the reconstitution of a credible police force in Northern Ireland.
As Clinton learned during his visit to Northern Ireland in 1997, each community is fond of reciting long and ancient lists of grievances suffered at the hands of the other. Powerful myths of domination or fear of domination have gripped the imagination in Northern Ireland for centuries, allowing both communities to regard themselves as besieged minorities. Competing myths of oppression and injustice have aggravated mutually felt wounds and have kept both sides locked in a desperate power struggle.
But if memories of violence have held a powerful grip in the consciousness of Northern Ireland, it is now the time to turn these memories to good advantage. Truth-telling offers at least as much hope for transforming the divided communities of Northern Ireland as does the clinging to old war stories without any forum for airing grievances.
Forgiveness is not likely when perpetrators are still in massive denial. For example, the British government should at last come clean on the event known as "Bloody Sunday," Jan. 30, 1972, when British soldiers fired indiscriminately into a crowd of 20,000 unarmed marchers. Thirty protesters were shot in the back.
Georgetown law professor Sam Dash repudiated the official whitewash issued in 1972 by Lord Widgery, stating: "Great Britain and the world cannot walk away from Bloody Sunday."
At this critical turn in its history Northern Ireland has something important to learn from regions of the Third World only recently recovering from decades of terrorism and death squads. Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala and South Africa can all teach at least this much to the contending parties in Northern Ireland: Genuine reconciliation can be achieved only by first acknowledging the duty to establish a truthful account of the brutality that tore the communities apart.
When the awful truth of violence on both sides is fully acknowledged, there is greater hope that the current accord will represent a mutual renunciation of violence and a permanent commitment to political resolution of important differences in the context of a new Europe.
The writer is a law professor at Valparaiso University.