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Northern Ireland's
historic peace meeting



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

Comments directly to

October 11, 2006

LONDON - The atmospherics in Scotland around this week’s meeting of the main protagonists in Northern Ireland’s long civil war have been good. The IRA has given up the gun. The fundamentalist preacher and leader of hard line Protestant opinion, the Rev Ian Paisley, is prepared to sit down not just with the prime minister of Ireland, Berty Ahern, and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain but also with Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader (and the person in the IRA leadership who counts the most).

Scotland, with its long history of autonomy on legal matters (remember the Lockerbie air terrorism trial), its independent educational system (no wonder Scots dominate the Blair administration) and, most recently, an autonomous parliament with real power is a lesson in political devolution for all who fear it, whether it be in Belfast, Madrid, Kosovo, Tel Aviv or New Delhi. Just about everything, other that foreign, military and nuclear policy can be fudged. Edinburgh even has its own permanent political mission in Beijing.

Fudge is a million times better than war, especially civil war, the cruellest and often the most bloody of all wars, which the Spaniards in particular, as the opposition rants against the sensible compromise proposals of Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to the demands of the Basque militants, seem to have too quickly forgotten. 

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is the bargain that ushered in today’s present state of de facto peace in Northern Ireland. (It was also the model for the Lizarra Declaration in Spain which led to ETA’s first cease-fire.) One commentator at the time called it “a working misunderstanding”. It enabled both sides to believe the agreement best served their political agenda, which suggested that both sides read into it things that weren’t there.

The political agendas of the two sides remain irreconcilable. The Protestants who make up around 60% of the North want to remain part of the United Kingdom and the Catholics want to join up as part of independent Eire to the south.

The Good Friday Agreement, which attempts to provide the Catholics with equitable political representation and a minority share of the offices of state in a devolved parliament modelled on Scotland’s, is seen by around half of the Protestants as the basis for a good permanent solution. (But the other half of the Protestants, led by Paisley have been public doubters.) The nationalists on the Catholic side see it only as a stepping-stone to a united Ireland.

But the major achievement of the negotiations that have followed the Good Friday deal is not only has most of the political violence died away, it is that neither side feels trapped in old political forms. The government of Eire won a referendum in 1998 that renounced the south’s constitutional claim to sovereignty over the north.

And the Protestants, with Paisley only partially dissenting, have declared themselves willing to be party to all-Ireland institutions in which Britain and Eire have an equal say in making policy. This opens the doors to voluntary change rather than coerced change.

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For a long time yet reality will be governed by the levels of unrest that accompany another provocative Protestant Orange Order march and by the number of times dissident IRA splinter factions let off a bomb. Although the religious earnestness on both sides made the province not that long ago one of the outstanding non-violent cultures in Europe- perhaps nowhere else was it as safe to bring up your teenage daughter- these days after 40 years of political gangsterism the province has a residue of severe criminal violence.

This week’s meeting will aim to fudge a little more - to persuade Ian Paisley’s Unionists to take up their seats in a devolved parliament and take into the cabinet senior Sinn Fein members. Now that the British government has certified that the IRA has totally disarmed Blair and Ahern will remind Paisley that as long as the Protestants watch the birth rate in their community their majority will stay intact for as long as the eye can see. Sinn Fein is already persuaded that violence is no longer necessary if the cross-border institutions function reasonably well and if they continue both in the north and the south to up the proportion of the vote at election time.

For both sides the trump argument for compromise should be the province’s economic future. If peace is finalised there is no reason why the North should not be an organic part of the South’s remarkable rush to economic prosperity.


Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


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