Since the Northern Irish peace process ostensibly began in August 1994, the attempt to find a political solution to Northern Ireland's "Troubles" has rolled from one crisis to another. Then, last week, an executive cabinet that includes Sinn Fein and a power-sharing government were established for the first time in Northern Ireland's history. But in a decision that again threatens the delicate process, David Trimble, Ulster Unionist Party leader and first minister of the new government, set an unexpected deadline. He has made his party's acquiescence to a Sinn Fein role in the government contingent upon the Irish Republican Army giving up some of its weapons by February. Trimble says that he is testing the IRA's commitment to disarming. The IRA sees Trimble's demand as a new and unacceptable "precondition." As a result, some analysts are predicating that the new government may fall even before the honeymoon is over.
Dire warnings of imminent collapse and a return to war have marked each critical stage in the peace process. After the 1994 IRA cease-fire, the British government hesitated to launch inclusive talks because the IRA message on the suspension of military operations didn't use the word "permanent." All-party peace talks were eventually set up, with former Sen. George J. Mitchell as chairman. But the talking almost never began. This time, the issue was whether arms decommissioning would be required before or in tandem with the negotiations. Then after almost two years of negotiations, the Good Friday Agreement nearly crashed over prisoner releases and a timetable for surrendering arms. Now comes Trimble.
Some commentators have contended that persistence, Mitchell's patience and even blind luck have moved the peace process along. But political will and luck can only take you so far. Instead, a deeper historical, demographic and political logic has sustained the momentum toward peace.
In his first address as Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams told a party conference in 1983 that armed struggle was "a morally correct form of resistance" against the British government's presence in the six counties of Northern Ireland. By the late 1980s, Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders had begun to rethink this strategy. A number of dynamics influenced that shift.
After years of carnage inflicted upon both communities, Adams and elements within the leadership of the IRA concluded that no military solution was viable. Terrible damage could be visited upon the British Army, security forces and on targets in England, but the war could not be won. Additionally, when the Berlin Wall collapsed in late 1989, it became clear to Adams that the ideological and political world was changing.
Certain elements in the British political establishment had considered the Northern Irish republican movement as Marxist-oriented and a potential "back door" for the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War scuttled this analysis and created political openings.
In 1988, Adams began a series of discussions with Social Democratic and Labor Party leader John Hume, an advocate of peaceful change, to find a political way forward. Initially, the dialogue between the two men was repudiated in media and political circles. But there were some in the British and Irish governments who saw logic in Hume's attempt to go beyond the failed coalitions of moderate nationalists and unionists. Hume's politics of "inclusion of the extremes" paid off: His discussions with Adams continued into the 1990s and built a key intellectual and political foundation for the future peace negotiations.
Adams also discovered that voters preferred Sinn Fein politics to IRA war. Since embracing democracy and repudiating violence, Sinn Fein has increased its popularity in Northern Ireland and made political inroads in the Irish Republic. There is historical precedent for this in Ireland. Fianna Fail, the party of Eamon de Valera, who dominated Irish Republic politics from the 1930s through the 1960s, won power democratically only after being defeated in a civil war and repudiating further violence.
Also during the '80s, the British government, while retaining its commitment to keep Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom, made moves to accommodate constitutional nationalism of the Hume variety in an attempt to isolate Sinn Fein politically. It was also facing the increasingly grim prospect of a protracted IRA war carried out in England.
In 1984, an IRA bomb almost wiped out the entire British Cabinet, which had gathered at a Conservative Party conference in Brighton. The Anglo-Irish Agreement that followed a year later gave the Republic of Ireland a formal consultative role in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland. It was negotiated "over the heads" of unionists, which stoked their already significant fears that the British, even under Margaret Thatcher's Tory leadership, were ready to abandon them to extricate themselves from a political nightmare.