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Mortal enemies, united

Could Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness possibly share power in Northern Ireland?

January 02, 2007|Ted Smyth | TED SMYTH participated in the peace process as an Irish diplomat in the 1970s and 1980s, including as an advisor on Northern Ireland to former Republic of Ireland Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald.

FOR THOSE Americans who despair of peace between Israelis and Palestinians or between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, there is proof in Northern Ireland that such ancient hatreds can be overcome: Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, once mortal enemies, are on a historic path to become, respectively, leader and deputy leader of a power-sharing government in that long-divided land.

Even in 2007, after years of halting peace negotiations and on-again, off-again deals, it is still stunning to think that these two men could end up working together in one government -- that Paisley, the firebrand Protestant preacher who has ranted against Catholics and Irish unification for more than 50 years, could possibly agree to enter a coalition with a former leader of the Irish Republican Army, one of the world's most notorious terrorist organizations.

The deal has yet to be finalized, but Rev. Paisley has already agreed in principle, saying that he would will indeed become first minister if and when McGuinness' Sinn Fein party pledges its support for the Northern Ireland police (with which Sinn Fein's military wing, the IRA, was at virtual war for decades).

Sinn Fein, for its part, is clearly preparing to endorse the police, and last Friday the party's executive council agreed to hold a special convention this month to propose a motion on the subject.

Compromise is a dirty word in Northern Ireland, and both Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein have in the last three years become the two largest parties by attacking the power-sharing compromises of moderate leaders such as David Trimble and John Hume, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.

So why are Paisley and Sinn Fein now apparently prepared to compromise? There is no simple answer, but the people of Northern Ireland are war-weary and appear to realize, after nearly 4,000 deaths since 1969 and terrible suffering, that neither side can prevail.

Second, a crucial breakthrough occurred last year when the IRA, after many false starts, finally decommissioned its weapons. Once the destruction of the weapons was verified by independent monitors, the last major obstacle to serious negotiations was removed.

Third, Britain's Tony Blair and Ireland's Bertie Ahern have consistently refused to restore government to the parties in Belfast unless the two sides -- loyalist and nationalist -- share power. They've also said that if there is no deal by next March, the 108 politicians and their advisors in the Belfast Assembly will not only lose their salaries and generous allowances, they probably will be faced with joint rule from London and Dublin.

And finally, at the ripe old age of 80, Paisley faces a stark personal choice: Does he want to be remembered only by history as an uncompromising obstacle to peace, or does he want to crown his career by becoming leader of Northern Ireland?

Despite all those arguments for compromise, Paisley and McGuinness still have a tough job in the next two months convincing enough of their followers that power-sharing with the enemy does not mean selling out. The writer Brendan Behan once joked that the first item on the Irish political agenda is always "the split" -- and Paisley and McGuinness will desperately want to avoid the sort of internal splits that were disasters in the past, such as the IRA split in 1969 and the frequent splits on the loyalist side.

So far, Sinn Fein and the IRA have been skillful in marginalizing the remaining IRA extremists and die-hards. While endorsement of the police is still contentious (many republicans still blame them for earlier killings of Roman Catholic residents, either directly or through Protestant paramilitary forces), the fact is that the Northern Ireland police force is one of the most reformed in the world, and a recent poll showed that even 80% of nationalists accept it.

For his part, Paisley is facing down fundamentalist dissidents in the Democratic Unionist Party who have vivid memories of atrocities ordered by McGuinness' IRA. Yet the odds are that Paisley will prevail within his own party for one simple reason: Unlike all previous loyalist compromisers, he doesn't have a Paisley on his flank to undermine him.

The next step is for Sinn Fein to convene a national convention later this month to accept the proposals on the police. This would be followed by elections to the new Northern Ireland Assembly on March 7. If all goes according to plan, the long-standing fomenter of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bigotry will on March 26 share the leadership of Northern Ireland with a former IRA terrorist.

If they both use their extraordinary political skills to find common ground, the coalition should survive and stand as a tribute to the painstaking diplomacy of all those from Ireland (North and South), Britain and the United States who worked for decades to make peace possible.

The peacemakers in the Middle East should take heart.

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