New Hope for Northern Ireland


When measuring progress in a bloody, centuries-old conflict, patience must be the order of the day. Northern Ireland’s hostilities are far from undone, but a process that days ago seemed to be spiraling downward seems to be righting itself. New proposals put forth this week by the British and Irish governments have apparently done their job, shifting the focus from violence back to negotiations.

The peace talks began four months ago at Stormont Castle on the outskirts of Belfast and recessed last month without even an agenda. Worse, in the last 15 days the region has gone through some very tense moments with tit-for-tat assassinations that still may bring on a resurgence of generalized violence.

It is against this tense environment that the new plan should be calibrated. Yes, the actual proposals are vague, but they are meant to be points for discussion, not prescriptions. They are broad enough that political groups previously reluctant to join in the dialogue may even take a seat at the table.


The proposal would essentially leave Northern Ireland as part of Britain, but with greatly increased independent powers and a stronger direct alliance to the Irish Republic. The Protestant Unionists, who are a majority in Northern Ireland, will generally welcome a proposal offering home rule under proportional representation. But nationalists should be reassured by provisions to ensure that all sections of the community are protected and able to work within the new institutions.

The proposals also include the creation of an intergovernmental council including representatives of the British and the Irish governments, the new Northern Ireland government and also Wales and Scotland, two other restive would-be breakaways. Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary Marjorie Mowlam and Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews both rightly stressed that all points are open to change.

Incidents of sectarian violence may surge again and it is almost impossible to prevent them. They are the perverse handiwork of those who are outside the fringe of the peace process. The only reasonable reaction for those who are at the center of the process is to continue to engage in talks that would lead to a peaceful coexistence through political negotiations at a common table. Unless reasonable people fill the vacuum of power, the outsiders will do it. Continued peace talks offer the only rational framework for the construction of a Northern Ireland at peace with itself.