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Prospects for Peace in Northern Ireland

Michael J. Ring

The road to peace is rarely smooth; it is usually fraught with divisive, daunting obstacles. But the sweet success lying at the end of the road is well worth the tremendous effort to overcome the challenges that lie along the way. This is the situation in which the people of Northern Ireland find themselves.

The executive of a new regional government, which should have been installed in April under the terms of last year’s Good Friday accords, is instead held in a state of frozen animation. Pro-British Unionists have refused to sit in government with Sinn Fein, an Irish nationalist party with close ties to the Irish Republican Army, until the IRA begins turning over weapons. Sinn Fein balks, arguing the decommissioning of weapons is not a precondition under the Good Friday agreement for holding seats in the new executive.

This week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern will meet in Downing Street with the three key players in this ongoing peace process -- Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, Social Democratic and Labor Party leader John Hume, and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. Certainly, the interests of Northern Ireland --and of the world -- dictate that this impasse be swiftly resolved.

Compromise is nothing new to these players. Trimble, head of Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party, rose to political stardom by vociferously supporting the Protestant marches through Catholic neighborhoods, which always stir trouble through the summer in Northern Ireland. To become the leading unionist voice in the peace process was quite a turnaround for a politician traditionally associated with hard-line proposals and rhetoric, and his embrace of the peace process turned many former supporters into enemies.

Likewise, Adams has convinced many hardened republicans, previously willing to use force to seek a union with Dublin, to cease their violent means and support the Good Friday agreement. Under the agreement, the legitimacy of British rule in Northern Ireland is recognized if that is (as currently) what a majority of Northern Ireland’s voters want. For Republicans, who have traditionally held British hegemony in Northern Ireland illegitimate, to accede to this clause constituted a major concession of their own. Adams and Trimble must again find common ground and compromise, and allow the government democratically elected by both the Catholic and Protestant communities of Northern Ireland to be installed.

Some have suggested the peace process be “parked” for the summer to allow the marching season and European elections to come and go. But this proposal is simply unacceptable. In such a delicate process, any and all conflicts must be frankly addressed and swiftly resolved. A minor problem now could explode into a crisis after three months of neglect. The issue of decommissioning cannot be left to stagnate; it needs immediate attention.

So what to do over the weapons quagmire? The chances of crafting a positive-sum solution out of this mess are extremely low: Either Trimble relents and allows Sinn Fein to sit in government, or Adams relents and turns up the heat on the IRA to begin decommissioning.

The actual Good Friday agreement seems to be on Adams’ side. The accord binds parties “to use any influence they may have to, achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following endorsement in referendums North and South of the agreement and in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement.” Handing in weapons is not a precondition to the formation of a Northern Ireland government, as Adams has repeatedly pointed out.

However, Adams must step beyond his own line in the sand and pressure th e IRA to begin the turnover of weapons immediately. Yes, that provision was not in the agreement, and Trimble’s claim that Sinn Fein must exert such force before being seated in government is an incorrect interpretation of the Good Friday agreement. Practically, though, it is Adams who must concede next to break the deadlock. David Trimble is a man with few friends among Northern Ireland’s unionist politicians. Considered a traitor by those who oppose the power-sharing agreement, he is in a very precarious political position. The demand for decommissioning is a bit of sabre-rattling to shore up his unionist credentials, and perhaps it does show hints of distrust of Sinn Fein on his part.

The cost of inaction in the peace process is too great for his demands not to be met. If this is the only way the Good Friday agreement will move forward, then so be it. A political quibble, no matter how important, is not worth another generation of violence. As Adams is more respected in his own community than Trimble is in his, the Sinn Fein leader has more leverage to make a move.

But compromise is a two-way street, and Trimble must be willing to give equally large concessions back to Sinn Fein. One concession of the appropriate magnitude would be to give the republican party control of cabinet offices linked to oversight of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland’s police force. As is still poorly viewed in many republican circles, the RUC has had a long history of discrimination against Catholics. Giving Sinn Fein oversight powers over this body would be an important and appropriate step of confidence-building on the part of Trimble.

As Trimble and Adams meet this week, the world waits and hopes this arms impasse will be reduced to what it should be -- merely a minor speed bump on the road to peace. The presence of Blair, Ahern, and John Hume, the leader of Northern Ireland’s Catholic party whose nonviolent struggle for civil rights has earned him comparisons to Martin Luther King, will hopefully be a great moral force pushing Trimble and Adams to compromise.

After centuries of violence, strife, and death, the people of Northern Ireland deserve nothing less than an end to The Troubles. I hope this week will be a giant step forward to that most worthy goal.