When David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, announced this week that he was prepared to accept Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, into a Northern Irish government, a decisive point was reached in the long and bloody road to peace.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said earlier in the week that "Unionism is no longer a monolith" and that some of the Unionist leadership had "faced up to the challenges of peace with courage."
Until this week, Trimble and his party had insisted that arms be surrendered before Sinn Fein would be allowed to participate in government. He is now risking his political career on the expectation that the IRA will quickly decommission weapons if Sinn Fein is allowed into a governing executive cabinet.
This political choreography could begin the implementation of the Good Friday peace agreement of April 1998. Yet much more than a consolidation of political institutions is taking place.
Northern Ireland is in the process of creating a new form of government. The Good Friday agreement establishes a binational state in which citizens who occupy the same territory but identify with divergent political aspirations can assert political, economic and cultural power within a framework of equality. The finely structured "deal" between Unionists who want to remain part of Britain and nationalists who desire a united Ireland is designed to be a power-sharing agreement while reconciling the minority Catholic community to a Northern Irish government that historically has been Protestant-dominated.
Under the new framework, all major decisions will take place by a process of "parallel consent" whereby majorities in the assembly from each political "community" will have to reach agreement before key decisions become law. Gone is the "majoritarian" ability of the Unionist community to unilaterally dominate the political process. Conversely, if nationalists become the majority, the same rules will protect a Unionist minority.
At the executive level, unlike most cabinets in which the prime minister appoints the ministers, the Northern Ireland Executive Committee appointments will be made according to the relative strength of the political parties in the assembly. This creates, as one analyst suggests, "a coalition government without a formal coalition agreement." And a north/south ministerial council will bring the Republic of Ireland into a more direct political relationship with Northern Ireland on cross-border issues, a key demand of Northern Irish nationalists.
Overall, the agreement is a political solution to what has primarily been a political rather than religious conflict. It recognizes two distinct national communities. Several tough issues remain, including the transformation of the largely Protestant police force, the removal of British troops and cultural questions such as parity of the Irish language.
Although the claims of national identity are being acknowledged, a fundamental shift in the definition of the nation-state and the theoretical content of nationalist political theory also is taking place. While Adams has recently reaffirmed the traditional nationalist view that Ireland is "historically, geographically and culturally one single unit," his assertion is being strenuously debated in Irish academic and political circles.
John Hume, Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the largest Catholic political party in the North, has argued for a broader definition of nationhood and a revision of Irish consciousness about its understanding of itself and its relation to the broader world. For Hume, the driving forces behind these transformations are technological and economic. He wants Northern Ireland to help shape the future of the European Union and regards the traditional political structures of the nation-state as inadequate to the problems created by a technologically advanced global economy. In today's Ireland, inundated like the rest of Europe with pop cultural images courtesy of Hollywood, there is no seamlessly unified culture and people bound together by a common faith and fatherland.
The political change in Northern Ireland reflects the beginning of the end of a "primordial nationality" defined by its exclusivity, insularity and aggressiveness. Unionists will have to give up the idea of their privileged position in a "Protestant state." The IRA must become a democratic advocate of what people want.
Irish poet Seamus Heaney has described the attempt at reconciliation as a "challenge to be in two minds." If Trimble can bring his party along and the IRA can deliver on its part of the bargain, the next generation of Irish children will have not just a cause to die for, but something to live for: a joyous Irish--and British--life.