Making Peace in Northern Ireland a Reality

Article excerpt

I never thought it unusual that London train stations had no lockers or trash cans. Only when I went abroad did I notice the difference between the United Kingdom and countries that do not design public areas around the threat of terrorist bombs. Like everyone else who grew up in the U.K. after 1969, I had lived my whole life under the shadow of terrorism. The terrorist campaign was constant and without hope of resolution. It was terrible. It was routine.

Since 1969, thousands of people have been murdered and tens of thousands have been injured and maimed in what the Northern Irish call "The Troubles." Among Northern Ireland's population of just one-and-a-half million, few families were unaffected by the violence.

The conflict in Northern Ireland has its origins in the division between the Protestants, who make up over 50% of the population, and the Catholic minority. Politics is split down community lines. The Protestants are predominantly Unionists, pledged to keeping the province of Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom. The Catholics are predominantly Republicans, wanting unification between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Extremists on both sides resort to terrorism.

The resounding referendum victory on May 22 for the Northern Ireland peace accord may finally end three decades of bloodshed and terror. The accord will introduce a structure for sharing power between Protestants and Catholics, Unionists and Republicans, British and Irish. Under the agreement, the people of Northern Ireland will democratically elect a new government for the province. The legislature's constitution will prevent the Protestants from using their majority to discriminate against the Catholics.

The peace settlement also requires changes by the governments of Britain and Ireland. The British government has agreed that Northern Ireland will be free to unite with the Irish Republic if the majority of the Northern Irish vote for it (which is very unlikely while there is still a Protestant majority). Ireland, in its own referendum on May 22, voted 94% in favor of revising its constitution's claim to Northern Ireland. There will be a North-South Council, giving the two national governments joint responsibility for cross-border concerns, including tourism, transport, and environmental issues.

RELIGIOUS APARTHEID

The peace settlement is the greatest stride forward in Northern Ireland's history. Yet many obstacles remain in the path to a permanent peace. Although 71.12 percent of voters supported the peace accord, it is estimated that nearly half the Protestants voted "no." Some paramilitary and political groups will continue to oppose the accord. Support for these groups may grow if communal tensions are not resolved.

Lasting peace will come only if the political compromise reached on paper is matched by a cultural transformation in Northern Irish society. …