Peace by Piece

Article excerpt

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern declared victory on Good Friday concerning Northern Ireland's tortuous peace process with a potential for settlement. Will it survive?

They had spent two years of their lives together negotiating a political settlement for a centuries-old conflict. And as the last few hair-pulling, teeth-gnashing days turned into the final hours and then last minutes, the atmosphere, say the men and women who negotiated a peace agreement for Northern Ireland, turned euphoric, historic and moving.

Secretaries eager for a glimpse of history in the raw spilled through the doorways into the room where a British prime minister, an Irish taoiseach, or prime minister, and an American politician sent from across the water to make peace, were finalizing the agreement which observers say may be the last, best chance at peace for the troubled province.

On the steps of Stormont, the home of Ulster's parliament for a half-century before sectarian bloodshed brought direct rule from London in 1973, media from around the globe stood barely 50 feet away during the last frenzied 32 hours of the talks. Tension-creased faces relaxed into looks of amazement as some of the most hardened politicians ever to grace a negotiating table exchanged warm handshakes with tears rolling down their cheeks.

"It was tough, it was rough and it was tiring," Alex Attwood, a negotiator for the Social Democratic and Labor Party, or SDLP, the leading Nationalist party in Northern Ireland, tells Insight. "You had to keep your wits about you and you had to believe you would get there reading people's best intentions, instead of their worst fears."

The Good Friday agreement was reached nearly 82 years after the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, which unleashed eight years of violence resulting in the establishment of an Irish Free State -- later to become the Irish Republic -- and the continued union with the United Kingdom of six Protestant-controlled counties in the North. In the end, it was the very politicians often referred to as intransigent who pulled off the deal. "It wasn't the government of any other country that did this!" exclaims Monica McWilliams, a negotiator for the cross-culture Northern Ireland Women's Coalition. "The parties did this themselves and it is historic." After three decades of paramilitary violence between primarily Catholic republicans and primarily Protestant loyalists, the negotiators "had everybody on board," she says. "Everybody stayed right through and we all came collectively out the other end."

But now, May 22 referenda in North and South will determine the fate of the agreement, which would establish a devolved power-sharing government for the North, although Ulster will remain securely pinned into Britain's lapel for now. Attwood surmises voters will say, "There is more that I can agree with than disagree with in this agreement, and if I vote `no' there is nowhere to go but back to the conflict, and I can't go back to living like that."

Heady with the excitement of possibility, Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, and Rep. Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, flew to Dublin a week after Good Friday to address Ard Fheis, the annual convention of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, or IRA. Many feared that the presence of U.S. politicians could spark a backlash among Unionist supporters, but, for better or for worse, the United States -- the refuge for many Irish during their 19th century post-famine diaspora -- long has been connected with Irish politics. And, at least sometimes, it appears to pay off.

Take the day before the Good Friday accords were announced. King, regarded as Sinn Fein's strongest congressional sympathizer, says that President Clinton made two crucial calls to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. "I would, first of all, give [former Sen. George] Mitchell tremendous credit," King tells Insight. "And I would also give the president credit. …