Monday, 26 February 2007

Who's happy in Northern Ireland?

Published April 1998

Perhaps the most significant difference is that nobody is entirely happy with the proposals

Today my optimism in the current peace process was vindicated. Despite mounting cynicism and disbelief, representatives from all sides of the political chasm in Northern Ireland burnt the midnight oil, finally shaping a compromise agreement that has been hailed as the most significant step forward on this Island since 1921.

My euphoria is tempered by awareness of the mighty task the peacemakers now face in bringing the agreement to the electorate in Northern Ireland and down here in the South - the referenda are set for May 22nd. The pull and push of extremists and diehards will be exacerbated by a cynical electorate (North and South of the border) who feel they have heard it all before. What makes this agreement different?

Perhaps the most significant difference is that nobody is entirely happy with the proposals. Parties to the agreement have been interviewed by the world's media and, almost to a person, have seemed lacklustre and cautious. This is partly due to sleep deprivation - thinking on their feet for almost 36 hours now - but there is also a sense that nobody is entirely satisfied. This is good, a positive indication of the nature and depth of compromise that has been achieved.

Speaking on Irish national TV, John Hume, prime architect of the current peace process, declared that there can be no triumphalism, no victory for any side. Victory for one would be defeat for another and lead to yet another unworkable solution. Each side has had to yield slightly more than it would prefer, but has also taken away slightly more than it could expect. The resulting agreement calls on both sides to the conflict to move forward to establishing an elementary degree of trust in one another - surely a crucial pre-requisite to developing a new vision of society on these islands.

It was disheartening, given my personal delight with the outcome, to hear interviews with groups in Northern Ireland - so many of the young people, who have known nothing but war and conflict in their lives, are sceptics. Hardly surprising perhaps, but you'd think they'd welcome a move forward, the promise of lasting peace. But then they have been lifelong witnesses of man's inhumanity to man, of his propensity towards hatred and madness. Their mistrust of politicians and gunmen will take more than a carefully drafted 67 page document to overcome.

The agreement addresses key issues such as decommissioning, equality, policing and prisoners, while presenting structural change in three strands, designed to work in total or not at all. A crucial gain for the loyalist negotiators is a commitment to amend Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution (these assert territorial claim to Northern Ireland), shifting emphasis from territorial sovereignty to a new concept of sovereignty of the people. In the meantime a Northern Irish Assembly will be established with all the trappings of self-government, with a brief to design and establish a number of cross border institutions with the South - a significant gain for the nationalist negotiators. Also on the agenda, in Strand Three, is the establishment of an inter-governmental conference between London, Belfast and Dublin, and also including the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales - a sort of emerging federal solution.

And here's the happy hope I have. Nationalism has caused more pain than pleasure in our world, has been the cause of so much evil and destruction. In defining our cultural worth we drift towards petty nationalism and territorial division. Federalism presents a more mature model of society, allowing for cultural diversity while sharing resources for the common good. But cultures need reassurances for them to be able to trust the greater whole, to feel sure that their contribution and needs will be given due recognition.

This is a wily and forward-thinking agreement, crafted by a unique set of people in a unique moment in our history. For it to achieve its ultimate goal of harmony and positive development, both cultures will have to see its potential. The work is only beginning for the peacemakers. Gerry Adams, like the rest of them, is not entirely happy with the agreement, but he believes that it provides the basis for development. This is all we can expect or hope for - let's hope the electorate give them a chance to bring it on.
by Triona Carey.

Published in
Essays from Ireland in In Motion Magazine - April 19, 1998.

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