Peace in Northern Ireland

The promise of a new era of peace in Northern Ireland will be realized on May 8, when the 108 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly meet and elect a 12-member administration. It is to be led by Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest Protestant party in Northern Ireland, as first minister, and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, the largest Catholic party, as deputy first minister. The new government will represent another attempt at the power-sharing between Protestant unionists and Catholic republicans that was envisioned by the Good Friday agreement of 1998, and it should bring to an end three decades of sectarian conflict that has claimed more than 3,600 lives.

The first assembly convoked after the 1998 Good Friday agreement was not able to reach agreement on authority over various ministries and collapsed in October 2002. This time around, however, agreement on the broad terms of the new government was announced at a historic meeting between Mr. Paisley and Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the first time the two parties had met in direct negotiations.

They did so under pressure from the governments of Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, which had set March 27 as the deadline for fulfillment of commitments made in the October 2006 St. Andrew’s Agreement, which called for elections for a new Northern Ireland Assembly that would appoint a power-sharing administration. Sinn Fein was prepared to meet the deadline, but Mr. Paisley, facing bitter opposition within his own party, asked for more time. When Sinn Fein agreed to the extension, the British government suspended its threat to impose direct rule from London once again.

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The photo of Mr. Paisley and Mr. Adams, long bitter adversaries, sitting together in Stormont Castle to announce their agreement on a future government was hailed by ordinary citizens on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland as a sign of new hope for that troubled province. The two sides remain in fundamental disagreement about the long-term future of Northern Ireland. Mr. Paisley and his followers are committed to continued union with Great Britain; Mr. Adams and his fellow republicans still seek eventual unification with the Republic of Ireland. Both sides, however, agree that this question should be determined at some future date through peaceful elections.

Despite their disagreement on the long-term future of Northern Ireland, both leaders expressed confidence that the immediate future held the promise of peace and progress. In Mr. Paisley’s words, After a long and difficult time in our province, I believe that enormous opportunities lie ahead. Mr. Adams hailed the start of a new era of politics, a time for generosity [and] a time to be mindful of the common good and the future of all our people. Both men recognized the tragic violence that had marked three decades of sectarian struggle. In Mr. Paisley’s view, We must not allow our justified loathing of the horrors and tragedies of the past to become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future for our children. And looking to that future, we must never forget those who have suffered during the dark period. While his interpretation of that past is undoubtedly quite different from Ian Paisley’s, Gerry Adams sounded a similar note: We are very conscious of the many people who have suffered. We owe it to them to build the best future possible.

Both Mr. Paisley and Mr. Adams face the challenge of recalcitrant hard-liners in their respective parties. A prominent member of the D.U.P., Jim Allister, resigned from the party in protest, suggesting that the lure of office had clouded Mr. Paisley’s judgment and declaring that Sinn Fein was not fit for government. Mr. Allister, however, will retain his seat as a member of the European Parliament. For his part, Gerry Adams will have to continue his efforts to persuade the Sinn Fein rank and file to cooperate with the largely Protestant Northern Ireland police, as the party had voted to do in January.

Both Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland have watched the dramatic transformation of economic conditions in the Republic to the south and have hoped that the Celtic tiger might travel north where decades of sectarian violence have undermined economic development. The Republic has offered millions for infrastructure projects in border areas and held out the possibility for other joint ventures. The promise of greater prosperity for all the citizens of Northern Ireland has at last freed both Protestants and Catholics from the wasteful violence of sectarian conflict.

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