Northern Ireland: A Vote for Peace

By Gaffney, Edward McGlynn | Commonweal, May 8, 1998 | Go to article overview

Northern Ireland: A Vote for Peace


Gaffney, Edward McGlynn, Commonweal


The partition of Ireland stems from the Treaty of 1922, in which England agreed to withdraw from Dublin and the twenty-six counties that now form the Republic of Ireland, and created the entity of Northern Ireland from the six counties in the province of Ulster. Since then, both sides in Northern Ireland - Unionists seeking to remain within the United Kingdom and Nationalists aspiring to national unity with the Republic - have thought of themselves as beleaguered minorities. Unionists form a majority in the North, but only a small percentage of the total population of the island, and have been wary of being abandoned by London to a "foreign" government in Dublin, where they fear that the distinctive character of their community will be swallowed up by the majority. Nationalists form a minority within Northern Ireland, have suffered injuries to their civil rights (voting, employment, housing) at the hands of the Unionists, and yearn for a more representative democracy that they identify with the Republic. Both communities can articulate a list of grievances as long as an arm, and the tenacious clinging to memories of past injuries has impeded a resolution of "the Troubles."

This picture will change if voters in Ireland and Northern Ireland on May 22 ratify a complex power-sharing arrangement that was struck on Good Friday when weary negotiators produced a historic agreement that demands much from all parties. Under this proposal, the Republic would renounce any claim on unifying the island, unless a majority in Northern Ireland desired that. Irish men and women on both sides are now challenged to think of new forms of civil order that transcend national identity while acknowledging the character of local communities. Under the agreement, a new power-sharing assembly in Northern Ireland would be elected according to proportional representation (thus ending the injustice of gerrymanders). Along with a cabinet that would also reflect the diversity of the electorate, this new body would absorb some of the governmental responsibilities now exercised in London. The agreement also establishes a Council in which ministers and legislators from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would work together on issues of joint concern, such as the environment, tourism, and transportation. A new body, the Council of the Isles, in which representatives from the parliaments of Britain and Ireland (and from the proposed assemblies of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales), would meet twice annually to discuss matters of mutual concern.

The biggest payoff from this agreement is that it promises a way out of the slaughter that has scarred Northern Ireland for nearly three decades. From 1969 to the present, partisan military and paramilitary violence has claimed 3,248 lives. John Hume, leader of the Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP), has consistently urged peaceful democratic negotiation as the only acceptable path toward the future. …

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