"The Good Friday Agreement is dead," said a man who ought to know--David Ervine, head of the Progressive Unionist Party and a signer of the historic peace plan agreed to on Good Friday 1998.
"The Good Friday Agreement is alive and kicking," says a man who ought to know--Sean Neeson, another signer of the deal and leader of the Alliance Party, the largest of the centrist parties formed to bring peace to this troubled British province.
Pundits, politicians and people on the street here have been debating whether there is any life left in the deal since Thursday. The meeting then to inaugurate a new provincial government broke up in failure, with the largest party boycotting and the remaining politicians hurling catcalls and religious epithets across the assembly chamber.
The governments of Britain and Ireland insist that the Good Friday peace process remains in place. And they plan to schedule multiparty talks here in a matter of days to revive the peace process, which has been threatened over an impasse on the handover of guerrilla weapons. They are even bringing in the popular American who brokered the Good Friday plan, former Senate majority leader George Mitchell. The Irish government says Mitchell, who is scheduled to meet Tuesday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, has agreed to commit several weeks to the task this fall.
But on the streets of Belfast this weekend--where the walls are covered with colorful murals honoring bombers and killers in the rival sectarian armies--the Good Friday Agreement seems more dead than alive.
The multiparty deal, pieced together over 30 months of negotiations, was a written document with commitments and timetables, most of which have since been broken. Even more, though, the agreement was an attitude, a reflection of a popular will.
On that memorable day, there was an overwhelming sense that Protestants and Roman Catholics alike were ready to move past their bitter memories. Ancient animosities gave way to a new sense of shared optimism.
But the intervening 15 months of bickering have brought back a good deal of the old tribalism. While the younger generation, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic, seems eager to go back to the peace plan, older residents in both communities are more dubious.
A poll this weekend in the Belfast Telegraph suggests that a majority of Protestants over age 40 might vote "No" if the agreement were set before the voters now.
David Trimble, leader of the largest Protestant party, the Ulster Unionist Party, has received much of the blame for Thursday's political disaster, because he made the decision to have his party boycott the historic assembly session. Among his fellow Protestants, though, Trimble has apparently strengthened his position by refusing to move ahead with the peace process.
On the Roman Catholic side, polls suggest that most still back the Good Friday Agreement, with its promise that Catholics will finally get a chance to take part in provincial government. But distrust of the Protestants is strong, particularly among older people. When Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams complained the other day that "the people on the other side are still unwilling to share power with Catholics," he expressed a view that is widely held in his community.
About 55 percent of the 1.6 million Northern Irelanders are Protestant, and most are unionists, that is, they want to preserve the political union with Britain. Most of the Roman Catholics are nationalists who want to break with Britain and form a single nation with the Republic of Ireland. There is also a growing phalanx of centrists, mainly college graduates, whose chief goal is to end the fighting between nationalist and unionist.
The Good Friday plan set out a series of carefully delineated steps toward peace and power-sharing, but progress toward those goals has been blocked time and again.
One problem, not addressed in the agreement, is the intense political warfare going in within the communities. This has been particularly true on the unionist side. Trimble and his Ulster Unionists are battling furiously with a competing Protestant voice, Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. One theory as to why Trimble boycotted Thursday's assembly session was that he feared that some of his own party members would vote with Paisley if they attended.
Ervine, a unionist who stands independent of Paisley and Trimble, argues that their hard-line stance on the issue of disarmament by the Irish Republican Army is driven largely by their own rivalry.
"The real argument isn't about guns," he said. "What's going on is a battle to decide the leadership of the unionist movement. That has become more important than making the agreement work."
CAPTION: Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, right, arrives with party colleagues in Belfast. He has been blamed for the halt in the peace process.