The 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, which largely ended sectarian violence in Northern Ireland and established a government in which Protestant Unionists shared power with Catholic Nationalists, was a historic accomplishment. Although it didn’t extinguish old hatreds or resolve every issue dividing the two communities, the agreement proved that a bloody and supposedly intractable conflict was susceptible to creative diplomacy. A generation has grown up without experiencing “the Troubles” that cost more than 3,500 lives between 1969 and 2001 and turned parts of Northern Ireland into virtual war zones.
But now that new order is threatened by the reckless behavior of the dominant pro-British party, the Democratic Unionists. On Thursday its leader, Peter Robinson, stepped aside as first minister of Northern Ireland, effectively paralyzing the government and threatening its collapse.
Robinson acted after the province’s legislative body rejected his call that it adjourn during negotiations on the political implications of the murder last month of Kevin McGuigan. McGuigan was a former member of the Irish Republican Army whose killing, police suggested, was retaliation for the assassination in May of Gerard Davison, reputedly a former IRA commander in Belfast. The killings undermined assurances by Sinn Fein, the erstwhile political wing of the IRA and part of the power-sharing government, that the paramilitary group had gone out business. A further complication is that police as part of their investigation arrested Bobby Storey, a senior member of Sinn Fein who is close to the party’s president, Gerry Adams. (Storey was released without charge.)
The possibility that remnants of the IRA are continuing to engage in violence (in this case, internecine violence) must be vigorously investigated by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, itself a product of the Good Friday reforms. Likewise, if there is convincing evidence that current officials of Sinn Fein are complicit in criminal activity, they should be not only prosecuted but purged by their party’s leadership.
But the allegations don’t justify plunging the province into governmental chaos. If the power-sharing government were to collapse, Northern Ireland could find itself ruled directly from London. That would deprive the province of an autonomy that has come to be prized by Catholics and Protestants alike and, if prolonged, would create the possibility that violence once again would fill the political vacuum. (So far, British Prime Minister David Cameron is resisting suggestions that he suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly.)
Robinson should reconsider his reckless action, and all parties in Northern Ireland — assisted, if necessary, by Britain and Ireland — should rededicate themselves to the principles of the Good Friday agreement.