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Less-troubled times

Ireland's quiet progress shows how small concessions can wear away at even the most intractable problems.

January 03, 2007

IN MOST societies, it isn't news when a major political party accepts the legitimacy of the police force. But the leader of the political wing of the Irish Republican Army made not just news but history last week by doing just that. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said he would ask a party conference to approve a motion supporting the "police services" in both Northern Ireland and the predominantly Catholic Irish Republic.

A recognition by Sinn Fein of the new Police Service of Northern Ireland -- a replacement for the Royal Ulster Constabulary long distrusted by Catholics -- would be a momentous step. It would add the final piece to the jigsaw puzzle of a new arrangement in which the North's pro-British Protestant majority shares power with the Catholic minority.

If power sharing is revived, credit will belong not only to Northern Ireland's erstwhile enemies but to the United States. Abandoning this country's traditional hands-off policy, President Clinton committed his administration to the search for a solution to "the Troubles," which killed more than 3,000 people. The result was the 1998 Good Friday Agreement negotiated by Clinton's envoy, former Sen. George J. Mitchell, which called for an "inclusive" government in Belfast.

Still, even as savvy a salesman as Clinton would have failed had not successive British and Irish governments worked together, often over the heads of their supposed surrogates in Northern Ireland. Both governments combined toughness toward terrorism with an openness to negotiations and creative thinking. (Alas, there is no equivalent of the Dublin-London axis to induce Israelis and Palestinians to settle their differences.)

In 1994, in a gesture to Northern Ireland's Catholics, Britain announced that it had no "selfish" interest in ruling the North against the wishes of a majority of the population. Four years later, as recommended by the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish Republic addressed a long-standing Protestant grievance by amending its constitution to renounce any claim to govern the North.

The effect of these and other concessions was to fudge the question of whether Northern Ireland was eternally part of Ireland or eternally subject to the British crown. The answer: It's neither. The North will remain linked to Britain until a majority decides otherwise, but meanwhile both London and Dublin will take care that the Protestant majority shares power -- including police power -- with a long-marginalized Catholic minority. And the guns will remain silent.

It's an untidy compromise, but eminently preferable to three decades of civil strife and political deadlock. Too bad it comes to late for those who didn't survive the Troubles.

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