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Echoes of the Bad Old Days Threaten Promise of Peace

Extremists among both nationalists and unionists are doing their best to destroy a fragile sense of trust.

October 13, 2002|Kelly Candaele | Kelly Candaele is a contributing writer for Irish America magazine and has written extensively on Northern Ireland.

The pessimists may be right about Northern Ireland. Ever since the Irish Republican Army announced a cease-fire in 1994, which gave momentum to peace, skeptics have predicted that, some day, the whole jury-rigged edifice of peacemaking would come tumbling down because the IRA wouldn't stay on a democratic path.

These days, unionists in Northern Ireland, U.S. officials and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are all feeling stung by the IRA and its political arm, Sinn Fein. They fear that the underlying dynamics of Northern Ireland have changed for the worse since the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998, which set up the power-sharing government of nationalists, who are mostly Catholic, and the mainly Protestant unionists who want to remain part of Britain.

If Sinn Fein and the IRA are still committed to the peace process, as Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams says, they need to explain their recent actions, which seem designed to give opponents of the agreement good reason to suspect that while Adams talks peace, the IRA still prepares for war.

Earlier this month, police raided Sinn Fein offices at Stormont, the seat of the Northern Irish Assembly, and later arrested four Sinn Fein supporters on charges of stealing sensitive British government and security documents, which included the names and addresses of Northern Irish police officers and prison officials, and passing them on to the IRA. Elsewhere, three men associated with Sinn Fein and the IRA went on trial in Colombia for allegedly helping the FARC, the country's largest guerrilla force, upgrade its bomb-making and weapons capability. And to make matters worse, a book published last week by a respected Irish journalist alleges that Adams knew about and sanctioned the murder of suspected informers, including a Catholic mother of 10, during his years as a member of the Belfast IRA.

The Good Friday accord was supposed to promote trust by requiring nationalists and unionists to work together to solve daily problems. But extremists in both communities have done their best to remind people that the bad old days are not securely in the past. Loyalist violence in Catholic enclaves in Belfast continues apace, and the IRA seems incapable of shedding its self-destructive and threatening behavior.

David Trimble, leader of the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party and first minister of the Northern Irish Assembly, has called upon Blair to expel Sinn Fein's two representatives on the power-sharing executive, effectively ending the political experiment. Trimble's bitterly divided party has told him that the disbanding of the IRA is its price for staying in the government, and he has, so far, acquiesced to save his political skin. Still, Trimble's career may soon be over, and an anti-agreement unionist may replace him as party head.

Distrust remains at the heart of the new tensions. Nationalists continue to believe that unionists don't want to share power with them; they think that the authorities are indifferent to the increasing violence against them; and they resent what they see as British pandering to unionist political whims. Nevertheless, the IRA has not gone back to war and has, in fact, destroyed two caches of weapons. Furthermore, when the British government bugged the offices and car of Adams and Sinn Fein negotiator Martin McGuinness during peace negotiations in 1995, they didn't walk away from the talks.

Adams will go down in history as one of the great leaders of Irish nationalism, the person primarily responsible for creating a path away from the senseless war of attrition that characterized Northern Ireland for 25 years. But, as one commentator recently noted, he may be a Moses able to lead his people to the promised land but unable to cross the Jordan River.

Adams, like Moses, needs help from powerful places. When tensions first threatened to upset the Good Friday agreement, President Clinton provided critical outside pressure when it was needed. Three times he traveled to Northern Ireland to bolster the chances for peace. His relationship with Adams enhanced Sinn Fein's international stature, which helped give it political standing. Even though most of the "hard men" of the IRA have followed Adam's lead, a culture of violence and distrust maintains a strong hold on IRA volunteers. Many retain a dangerous belief that the only language the British understand is the language of force.

Yet, it's hard to overstate the progress Northern Ireland has made. In 1972, there were 10,000 shootings and 500 deaths attributable to the "Troubles." Last year, there were four deaths related to political strife. Ironically, that success may be one reason why Northern Ireland is not on President Bush's foreign policy radar.

After the Good Friday agreement was signed, there was widespread hope that the Northern Irish experiment would be a model for resolving intractable disputes. The Spanish looked for lessons they could apply to Basque separatists. Palestinian and Israeli academics and representatives arrived to study the peace process and to talk to people on the ground. Now, with the suspension of the Northern Irish government a distinct possibility, that experiment may be just another tragic chapter in Irish history.

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