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Fresh Air for Irish Peace Process

Nobody said it would be easy. The conflict in Northern Ireland is old and deep and there is no magic formula to resolve it. But when the newly formed Mitchell Commission stepped in to mediate, there was revived hope in a peace process that had been stalled for months. Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell and his Canadian and Finnish colleagues have now delivered much needed fresh air. After hearings, they issued recommendations that aptly have been called balanced and fair.

The panel’s report concluded that the British demand for the “decommissioning” of arms prior to peace talks was unrealistic. A workable compromise, it suggested, would be to disarm and talk simultaneously.

British Prime Minister John Major praised the report but called for elections in Northern Ireland to create a forum to negotiate a settlement. After the elections, he said, “it is possible to imagine decommissioning and such negotiations being taken in parallel.”

The reaction to his proposal predictably divided along well identified lines. The British/Protestant side welcomed it, with David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionists, saying an elected body was “the only way forward.” The Irish/Catholic side had the opposite reaction; Irish Prime Minister John Bruton said that Major’s proposal “will create distrust.” John Hume, head of the Catholic and moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party, accused Major of trying to buy the votes of the Protestant parties “to bolster his wafer-thin parliamentary majority,” and Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, said that Major’s move deepened the impasse.

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Although the idea of an election is appealing to democrats, in this case there are legitimate concerns about fairness: Northern Ireland is roughly 55% Protestant and 40% Catholic, a reality that has led to Protestant control of the British province for more than 50 years and presumably would give the Protestants the upper hand in a negotiating forum.

Furthermore, twice in the past the British have created assemblies to promote cooperation between the two main sides. Both failed. Many political observers maintain, however, that past experience does not mean that this new assembly could not work. The political climate today is much better than those of 1975 and 1982 when the previous assemblies failed.

Reactions to the Mitchell report aside, momentum toward a permanent peace should be maintained. That requires continued observation of the 17-month-long cease-fire. Old enemies should pick up the pieces and move ahead in the political realm. Somewhere there is a compromise. Cool and patient heads are needed.


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