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Realism Tempers Hope and Emotion Over Deal

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ireland has too long and tumultuous a past to allow anything approaching blithe optimism. “History is indeed a difficult prison to escape from, and the history of Ireland is as difficult as any,” historian Robert Kee has observed.

So not surprisingly, Kathleen McPeake, 51, hurrying home from shopping with the youngest of her three sons in Belfast’s heavily Roman Catholic neighborhood of Falls Road, was skeptical when asked her thoughts about a peace deal for Northern Ireland.

“I don’t know if there can ever be an agreement,” she said. “There is talk of compromise. But things here have been the same for so long, I don’t know if people can agree.”

History, and lifetimes of sober experience, are why the hope and emotion kindled by Friday’s achievement of a package deal intended to bring an end to “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland and reconcile north and south, Protestant and Catholic, were quickly followed for many here by a bracingly cold shower of realism.

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Much fine print must be filled in or deciphered; the support of the people, in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, must be obtained in next month’s referendums. The enemies of yesterday--of centuries ago--still must prove that they can work together and trust one another.

“It is only a foundation,” John Alderdice, leader of the Alliance Party, which tries to straddle Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide, cautioned of Friday’s agreement. “It could also go away if we sit on our oars.”

In both communities, Catholic and Protestant, staunch opposition to doing a deal has already reared its head. The towering, gravel-voiced Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, has announced that he will lead a campaign for a “no” vote in the referendum.

He accuses David Trimble, the leader of the largest pro-British party, of selling out.

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Under the power-sharing agreement hammered out, Trimble, 53, a lawyer and member of the British Parliament, is likely to become the first leader of Northern Ireland’s new government, with the moderate Catholic John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labor Party as his deputy.

Paisley observed: “I’m saying to Mr. Trimble, ‘Do what you like, say what you like, take any bribe they give. The people of Northern Ireland will totally and absolutely reject you and what you are attempting to do.’ ”

It was the rebellion of ordinary Protestants that in 1973 wrecked a previous attempt at parceling out power between republicans and unionists. If it becomes obvious in coming weeks that this latest agreement means Irish Republican Army bombers being released en masse from prison and members of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, sitting as honorable members of Northern Ireland’s government, a goodly number of Protestants could balk.

Sinn Fein is also being accused of selling out--in its case, the longtime cause of a single, united Ireland. In Catholic West Belfast, graffiti have already been daubed on the walls warning, “Gerry Adams, you know what happened to Michael Collins.”

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Collins, a celebrated Irish revolutionary, was slain in an ambush after signing the Dec. 6, 1921, agreement with Britain that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State, but without the half a dozen counties that now make up British-ruled Northern Ireland.

“Bear in mind that if this agreement is arrived at this week, then next week, the country will still remain divided,” Sinn Fein Chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said Thursday. “The republican objective of a united Ireland will still not be achieved.”

Already, a trio of republican splinter groups opposes the notion of an accord with the British, whom they consider invaders in Ireland. After Easter, Adams must try to persuade Sinn Fein’s party leadership that Friday’s deal is merely clever tactics.

In addition, the Irish government, led by the Fianna Fail party, must ask voters to amend the constitution to give the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland effective right of veto, via a vote, over the longtime Irish dream of unification.

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“They will be able to say this is a steppingstone to the great goal: a united Ireland,” said Conor Gearty, a professor at King’s College in London.

One major, perhaps decisive, reason that Friday’s agreement is unlike past attempts at solving the Northern Ireland problem is that paramilitary groups were indirectly involved because of the admission of their political fronts, such as Sinn Fein, as full-fledged participants in the talks. For some specialists on Irish politics, this is a great reason for optimism.

“These talks have been successful because of their inclusiveness and the realization that for a deal to stick, parties associated with the paramilitary groups would have to take part,” said Sydney Elliott, a senior lecturer at Queen’s University in Belfast.

But according to one British estimate, there are more than 1,000 people convicted of murder and 10,000 found guilty of terrorist actions in the province, any number of whom could do their utmost to sabotage a deal.

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There was a clear warning of the potential for mayhem last week when officials in the Republic of Ireland impounded a car laden with more than 1,000 pounds of explosives before it could be shipped to Britain. The “32 Committee” of die-hard republican opponents of a peace settlement were believed responsible.

But what may make Friday’s settlement truly different is the stuff of history itself--the passage of time.

When Paisley and an army of Protestant hooligans tried to crash the peace talks Thursday, the preacher was heckled at a news conference not by his lifelong enemies, those who dream of and work for Irish unity, but by a small Protestant party, the Progressive Unionists, who represent a pro-British guerrilla group.

After 30 years of bloodshed that often has made the streets of their neighborhoods parlous and has decreased the chances that they and members of their families can find good jobs, they decided to talk rather than fight.

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“Shedding sweat [to seek a peace agreement] is better than shedding blood,” Progressive Unionist leader David Ervine said.

In the end, shared hopes for a brighter future may prove stronger than the past. Keep repeating the errors of history, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said Friday, “and the past becomes the future, and that is something that nobody desires.”

David Sterrett, 13, turned into something of a local celebrity when he met President Clinton during Clinton’s 1995 visit to Northern Ireland. The teenager may still be too young to have absorbed all of Ireland’s history, but he knew Friday what he thought of the peace agreement--it was “great.”

“I hope there will not be any more violence or killings,” said the Belfast youngster, whose entire life has been spent amid Ulster’s unrest, the dangers of car bombs and snipers.

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“We will be able to go out and play without worrying if anything is going to happen.”


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