Magazine article The Christian Century

Can Peace Last?

Magazine article The Christian Century

Can Peace Last?

Article excerpt

WHAT NEW THING has happened in Northern Ireland? The peace agreement reached on Good Friday 1998 has begun to be implemented. A power-sharing Assembly has been established in which, for the first time, representatives of all political persuasions have agreed to participate. The two main governments did their parts. Britain passed legislation, duly signed by the queen, transfering power from the parliament in Westminster (where it had resided since the crisis of 1971-72) to the Assembly in Stormont, outside Belfast. The government of Ireland passed legislation amending its constitution to renounce its traditional territorial claim to Northern Ireland.

These moves by Britain and Ireland appear to give in to the main Unionist demands. Britain, Ireland and the two major nationalist parties in Ulster now agree with a Unionist construction of the constitutional question: that, at least for now, Ulster is a legitimate part of the United Kingdom, and that its constitutional status can be altered only by the express wish of the people of Northern Ireland themselves. But the Unionists are badly divided. Only 57 percent of the larger Unionist party--David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party--agreed to participate. Ian Paisley's slightly smaller Democratic Unionist Party is opposed to the agreement and the Assembly but is going along for the moment, though it says its members will not actually sit in the same room with Sinn Fein. If the UUP falters in its ability to work with the main Catholic party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and SF, the DUP could possibly supplant it as the party of Protestant Ulster.

There are many reasons why it took 18 months to move from the Good Friday Agreement to the Assembly. The great backlog of mistrust between the parties requires that even the smallest matters must be dealt with slowly and carefully. But the main stumbling block has been the Irish Republican Army's refusal to turn in its weapons, and the Unionists' refusal sit down with SF until it does. The headlines have proclaimed the Unionist view: "no government until no guns." Both positions are plausible, though for different reasons. The Unionist position seems unassailable: there can be no extra-parliamentary forces in a democratic society. SF's leaders, especially its able spokesman, Martin McGuinness, accept the Unionist viewpoint in theory, but they worry about the Royal Ulster Constabulary's historic hostility to the Republican movement and about what will happen if it acquires a monopoly of force.

Further, as SF points out, the Good Friday Agreement did not mandate that guns must be surrendered before a government is formed. SF says a decommissioning of weapons should be voluntary; all the other parties insist that decommissioning is a moral obligation under the agreement, if not specifically mandated by it. Until recently the UUP said (and the DUP shouted) that it wouldn't trust SF's pledges that once the government was launched and something like normal society reestablished it could persuade the IRA to surrender its weapons.

The political miracle of late November was accomplished, in large part, by a new player, Peter Mandelson, who replaced Mo Mowlan as Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland. Mandelson persuaded the UUP at least to try the policy of trust. The UUP party conference voted 58-42 to go ahead, to "jump first." But Trimble's first public words showed how little trust there actually was, since he immediately challenged Adams and SF also to jump--and soon. …

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