In early July, 15 months of peace negotiations between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland collapsed. In response, a young man on the Falls Road in West Belfast said to anyone close enough to hear him, “We should all prepare to duck.”
His sentiments are understandable. The inability to build on success encourages the avatars of violence waiting in the wings. In the three decades of the modern “troubles” in Northern Ireland, other attempts to find a political solution to the strife have crumbled, only to be followed by renewed terror. But though there are lessons to be gleaned from this bitter history, there are elements in place this time that offer a modicum of hope. The politics have broken down, but a will to make peace continues to limp forward. The next eight weeks will be crucial.
The day before the Northern Irish Assembly was to nominate members to an inclusive executive cabinet, a critical component of the Good Friday Agreement, British Prime Minister Tony Blair sternly warned that the only alternative to the agreement was “the abyss.” His message was clear: Take this agreement or face the potential of relegating another generation of Northern Irish citizens to the trauma and sorrow of war.
The next day, when David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and first minister of the Northern Irish Assembly, announced his party would not accept Sinn Fein’s participation in government, the blame game started immediately. Trimble blamed Blair for pushing too fast and too hard for a final deadline for agreement. Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, blamed Trimble and Blair, the former for a failure of leadership and trying to “rewrite” the Good Friday Agreement, the latter for trying to “placate” the unionists with futile last-minute amendments on arms decommissioning.
What didn’t happen is as significant as the recriminations: None of the pro-agreement parties has given up the search for an agreement. Blair said he felt “the hand of history” on his shoulder, possibly meaning he was looking to history to provide insight into how dramatically Northern Ireland had changed since the mid-1970s.
A previous attempt at a power-sharing government for Northern Ireland was made in 1973-74. Assembly elections were held in 1973, and an executive cabinet was established, with both unionists and nationalists participating. In addition, the “Sunningdale” agreement, named after the town in Britain where negotiations were held and signed late in 1973, created a Council of Ireland that gave the Dublin government a mostly symbolic role in deliberations on Northern Ireland.
But even these modest changes were too much for a majority of unionists to stomach. Brian Faulkner, the leader of the largest unionist party at the time, was forced to resign as party leader because of his support for Sunningdale. In a snap British general election, called in February 1974 by then-Prime Minister Edward Heath, all 11 unionist MPs sent to Westminster were anti-Sunningdale.
But unlike today, both republican and loyalist paramilitary groups had repudiated the new political arrangements and were engaged in one of the most violent periods of the Troubles. In February 1974, nine British soldiers and three civilians were killed by an IRA bomb in Britain; in May, loyalist paramilitaries set off car bombs in Dublin and County Monaghan, killing 33.
Also that month, the Ulster Workers Council, which represented Protestant workers at key electrical, water and transportation facilities, called a general strike to bring down Sunningdale, the power-sharing government and Faulkner. When Harold Wilson, the Labor Party’s new prime minister, failed to act decisively with British troops to crush the strike, Northern Ireland’s experiment in constitutional government was doomed. Faulkner was ushered into the political wilderness, and the years between 1974 and 1994 became what one historian describes as a period of “activity without movement.”
Today, Northern Ireland unionism is still badly divided. Unlike his nationalist counterparts who lead the Social Democratic and Labor Party and Sinn Fein and agree on the basics, Trimble constantly peers over his shoulder at Faulkner’s ghost. Trimble wants to make a deal. He knows Northern Ireland has nowhere else to go politically. But there are some outspoken party members who continue to pander to the opponents of change. Fortunately, unlike Faulkner’s party, Trimble’s Ulster Unionists are on record strongly supporting the Good Friday Agreement. Last year, his ruling council backed the agreement by a resounding 72%. Trimble is on politically shaky ground, but the divisions are related to the “sequencing” of arms decommissioning, not the agreement itself. Recent polls indicate strong support for the agreement among unionist voters.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein has discovered the benefits of its political strategy: The public prefers its democratic initiatives to IRA violence. Last month, in local elections in the Irish Republic, Sinn Fein made dramatic inroads in areas where it had been previously excluded.
There is an encouraging economic dimension as well. In the 1970s, the Irish Republic was considered an economic backwater; today, it’s the “Celtic Tiger.” There has been a convergence of living standards between north and south, and the European Union views the island as a single market. If political institutions in the north can be stabilized, capital investment will follow. All the pro-agreement players know this.
In Britain, Blair, unlike his predecessor, John Major, has political room to maneuver, since he enjoys a 179-seat majority in the House of Commons. Most in the British political establishment no longer regard Northern Ireland as of strategic interest. Also, the end of the Cold War enabled President Bill Clinton to act on Northern Ireland. In January 1994, he infuriated Major and overrode his own secretary of state, Warren M. Christopher, by granting Adams a visa to visit the United States. Adams’ trip opened political doors and set the stage for an IRA cease-fire last August, a precursor to Sinn Fein’s entry into political negotiations.
Despite these signs of progress, some prefer to wrap themselves in the bloody security blanket of “the struggle.” Just after the cease-fire, a maniacal IRA splinter group set off a bomb in the town of Omagh, killing 29. On the day the Ulster Unionist Party refused to join the executive cabinet with Sinn Fein and other nationalists, the virulently anti-Catholic political leader Ian Paisley insisted it was “a great day for Northern Ireland.”
But even in loyalist working-class areas, there is growing awareness that Protestant privileges don’t amount to a great deal. One loyalist leader who is not a member of Paisley’s party trenchantly remarked, “Paisley is willing to have us fight to the death for his principles.”
The Antrim coast is one of the most beautiful stretches of land in all Ireland, arching north from Belfast for 70 miles toward Derry. It has remained unexplored by most citizens of the republic and avoided by cautious American tourists. Former Sen. George J. Mitchell is returning to “facilitate” another attempt at agreement after an August pause in negotiations. If Mitchell can work his magic one more time, the Antrim coast, along with the rest of Northern Ireland, just might emerge from a long winter of conflict into a summer of hope. Northern Ireland is running out of chances.