The Easter Peace: A Dramatic Deal Raises Northern Ireland's Hopes

By McGuire, Stryker | Newsweek, April 20, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Easter Peace: A Dramatic Deal Raises Northern Ireland's Hopes


McGuire, Stryker, Newsweek


There are few Pollyannas in Northern Ireland. "Peace walls" divide Protestant and Roman Catholic neighborhoods, shootings and bombings have taken more than 3,000 lives in the past 30 years and graffiti spell out sectarian hate. Under tremendous pressure last week, the region's most powerful politicians reached an agreement on a new form of government for the troubled province--a deal that may be the most important since Ireland's independence in 1921. But the public reaction was guarded, more relief than euphoria. The Good Friday settlement "won't cure all the ills," said Belfast Mayor Alban Maginness. But he added: "We are moving from the politics of strife and violence into the politics of inclusiveness and reconciliation."

It's not the first such attempt. Negotiators have made six stabs at peace accords since the Troubles began in 1969; the only one that actually was signed fell apart quickly. What's different this time is that all the important parties to the conflict are on board, and the plan they agreed on fundamentally alters the way Northern Ireland will be governed. American muscle helped; the 22-month talks were led by former senator George Mitchell, and President Clinton knocked heads by telephone during a 17-hour negotiating marathon after the "final" deadline had passed. The real hero, though, may be bland John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. His is the largest of the Nationalist political parties seeking to join the independent, predominantly Catholic Irish Republic with the North, which is dominated by Protestant "Unionists" and has been governed directly by London since 1972. Hume broke a taboo in the late 1980s by opening discussions with Sinn Fein, the political arm of the underground Irish Republican Army. Ultimately, British Prime Minister Tony Blair took pains to keep political parties with paramilitary links, including Sinn Fein, at the peace table. Without them, the deal would have been doomed in advance. "We have seized the initiative from the men of violence," said Prime Minister Bertie Ahern of Ireland. "Let's not relinquish it, now or ever."

Like its failed predecessors, the agreement seeks to protect Catholics in Northern Ireland from domination by the majority. …

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