CROSSMAGLEN, Northern Ireland — Many things have changed in Northern Ireland since Protestants and Catholics signed the Good Friday peace agreement nearly a year ago, but from this outpost of sympathy for the Irish Republican Army to a new parliament's marble halls in Belfast, one key element remains the same: deep distrust.
Political leaders say the peace accord is threatened by Protestant demands that the IRA begin to disarm before its political wing, Sinn Fein, takes seats in a new Northern Ireland executive, and by the IRA's refusal to do so. Both sides are seeking President Clinton's help in breaking the deadlock during meetings in Washington beginning today.
On the ground in Northern Ireland, however, the disarmament issue looks like a symptom rather than the cause of the standoff. What seems to be undermining the agreement is the mutual suspicion born of hundreds of years of sectarian conflict and nurtured by three decades of warfare.
Suspicion is rampant in Crossmaglen, the only town in Britain with a monument to Irish freedom fighters and a British army watchtower in its central square, where ear-splitting military helicopters fly overhead with machine gunners in the doorways.
The British army and Royal Ulster Constabulary see this border town as a bastion of support for the republican cause of uniting Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic, as well as a base for IRA splinter groups that have not joined in a cease-fire.
From McNamee's Coffee Shop to Carragher's Victualer--a butcher--and around the corner to Paddy Short's bar, the view among Roman Catholics is unwavering. Whatever pressure Clinton might apply to Sinn Fein, the IRA should refuse to give up its weapons.
"If the IRA hands over six shiploads, they'd say there are another three," said Peter Boyle, 30, on a coffee break at McNamee's. "If they give up their guns and the Protestant paramilitaries started up again, they'd have nothing to fight back with."
Such distrust--reinforced by the car-bomb killing of a leading Catholic lawyer Monday--is mirrored on the other side by the Ulster Unionist Party's Michael McGimpsey, a Protestant member of the new Northern Ireland Assembly from Belfast and one of the majority that wants Northern Ireland to remain a part of Britain.
"The biggest problem we have now is that the average unionist is asking why the IRA wants to retain its arsenal. And the only answer they have is because the IRA intends to use it again," McGimpsey said in his new office at the Stormont Parliament building.
"[Sinn Fein leader] Gerry Adams says he is committed to peace and democracy in Northern Ireland. Well I say, that's fine for you, but what about the people behind you?" McGimpsey said. "The trust is not there yet."
So deep was the suspicion--indeed, the hatred--going into the peace process that Protestant leaders refused to negotiate an agreement directly with Sinn Fein and worked, instead, through intermediaries such as former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell. As a result, they did not get to know each other in the same way that the warring parties in the Middle East or El Salvador did after months of face-to-face negotiations.
And they would not seal their deal with a handshake--even one as pained and reluctant as the one Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in September 1993.
That was of little consequence to the vast majority of Northern Irelanders, however, who approved the accord by more than 70% in a referendum last May. A month later, they turned out in droves to elect a 108-seat Northern Ireland Assembly, their first self-rule government in a quarter-century.
The assembly sat for the first time in July, bringing Sinn Fein leaders together in a raucous but democratic forum with former members of Protestant paramilitaries.
The government began to take form, if not power.
Stormont, home of a short-lived power-sharing body brought down by Protestant hard-liners in 1974, was refurbished with a members bar, computers and closed-circuit televisions. There was even talk of building a gym and day care center, signs that the new government expected to stay in power.
Under the agreement, commissions on human rights, equality and reform of the predominantly Protestant police force were put into place, and about 300 IRA and Protestant prisoners have been released from jail.
"Everybody has had to swallow pride. Everyone has sacrificed sacred cows," McGimpsey said.
With mainstream cease-fires holding, the British army and RUC police began to pull back, reducing their presence and, consequently, tensions in the street.
Yet the political advances have not ended the bloodletting. Both the IRA and Protestant paramilitaries have seen their extremists break off into splinter groups that killed 55 people in political violence last year--53 of them civilians--and two so far this year.