Northern Ireland is a small part of a small country. There are just 1.5 million people in an area where the greatest distance between any two points is 100 miles. While political/military disputes go back centuries, particularly to the 17th century, the current situation is directly the result of the partition of Ireland in 1921 into Northern Ireland and what is now the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland was created with a "permanent" majority - Protestants - and a permanent minority - Catholics - with different cultural and political orientations for each religious grouping, and this fact created permanent problems.
Much in the world has changed since the 1920s but it seemed that after almost 30 years of the current "Troubles" the end was still out of sight. Then on Good Friday, April 17, an agreement was signed by most political parties that may usher in a new era. Included in the agreement are three political parties that have military wings. The agreement was backed on May 22 by simultaneous referenda in Northern Ireland and the Republic. Some 71% backed it in the North and 94% in the Republic. For the first time it looks as if compromise and cooperation may be winning over violent confrontation.
The agreement means that there will be a power-sharing government based in Belfast handling most of Northern Ireland affairs (some affairs, e.g. military and security, will be kept by London). There will be a North-South council of ministers for cooperation between the two parts of Ireland. And there will be a council of Britain and Ireland with the various governments, including a soon-to-be-set-up Scottish and Welsh assemblies. One interesting feature is a civic forum, which will provide a think tank from the strong community, trade union, and other sectors.
In the 30 years of the current Troubles over 3,600 people have been killed and well over 40,000 injured (just going by official figures). When you consider the small population size, this is obviously a toll that, while nothing compared to the larger high intensity conflicts, has created great bitterness, hurt, and fear.
It would be good to be able to tell you that peace and reconciliation groups played an essential role in the potential settlement - but it would not be true. The peace and reconciliation sector, much of it solely concerned with the Northern Ireland situation and not with any awareness of international peace issues, has played a role in changing public opinion and the acceptance of violence, but how significant it has been overall is debatable.
Conversion of Military Groups
What has been of greater significance has been the movement away from violence within three of the main paramilitary groups; the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on the republican and Catholic side, and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) on the loyalist and Protestant side. Each has been down that road and seen that violence does not work. Each has suffered and caused suffering, sometimes with death, sometimes with long imprisonment. Gradually leaders within the political parties associated with these military groups - respectively Sinn Fein, the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) and the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) - have taken things in a political direction. From the early 1980s, Sinn Fein had a "ballot box and armalite" strategy; now the armalite is dropped.
The Catholic population of the North strongly backs the April 17th agreement. The Protestant population, on the other hand, has been quite divided, and a controversy has been ongoing since the 71% result in favor as to whether a majority of Protestants supported or opposed the agreement. The main figure in the "anti" camp is Ian Paisley, who heads up not only his own political party but his own fundamentalist church as well; the word "yes" does not appear in his vocabulary.
The fact is that, to avoid ongoing violence, more Catholics have chosen to compromise while some Protestants have greater difficulties with change. And it is the republicans and nationalists who have compromised the most ("republican" is simply a term for a stronger nationalist in the way that "loyalist" is simply a stronger unionist). There is no united Ireland. The proposed level of cooperation with the Republic of Ireland is only what you might expect to see in the Nordic/Scandinavian countries where there are close ties anyway. But such is the antipathy of some Protestants to the Republic that even this is too much.
Sinn Fein, although it lives to fight for a united Ireland politically, has made very significant compromises in the way that the unionist and loyalist parties have not. But the two "smaller political parties" on the loyalist side that have military wings have made vast strides in moving away from the old "give nothing to Teagues" (Catholics) philosophy bywhich unionism was tarnished. In fact, some leaders of these parties are more prepared to cooperate with Catholics and nationalist parties than some in mainstream unionism.
So things have changed. How much they have changed we will see after elections to the local assembly on June 25. Will the unionist right wing succeed in strangling the developing institutions? Or will progressive forces be able to keep up the momentum for cooperation between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and between Northern Ireland and the Republic? Can sectarian feelings be reduced or will they continually be aroused by summer parades and other issues? History is not yet over in Northern Ireland but with some luck and some good management it may be a quieter and more peaceful history than what has gone before. So if there is no news about Northern Ireland in the Canadian press, that will certainly be good news!
Rob Fairmichael is coordinator of INNATE, an Irish Network for Nonviolent Action, Training, and Education, with members in both parts of Ireland.
With 80 percent of the votes counted, it appeared on June 27 that the Ulster Unionist Party, led by David Trimble, was leading with 25 seats, as compared to 18 seats for Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, which would have needed 30 seats in order to block the peace accord. Sinn Fein's leader, Gerry Adams, was elected and may join the executive of the new Northern Ireland Assembly.