By John Kelly
The island of Ireland will be a totally different piece of real estate from this week on. Yet the change will not be all that apparent for a considerable time. Because its people have been conditioned by thousands of years of history, divided and subdivided by outmoded religious differences and imperialist dominance, tangible change will be very slow indeed. As the summer days lengthen, Irish people of all persuasions may not detect any at all.
Despite the enormous changes in Ireland over the last several weeks, particularly after Friday’s vote, there will be a Northern marching season after all. The necessity for one tribe to assert its dominance over the other, it seems, is as urgent as ever.
The “No Surrender” parties, marshaled as adroitly as ever by the Rev. Ian Paisley, who has lost much of his credibility in the last six months, will attempt to seize the issue of the marching routes as their final bitter rallying ground. Quite probably, they will attempt to escalate sectarian confrontation to the point that it leads to tribal clashes.
If a major threat to the new North-South concord is to be nipped in the bud, the RUC will have to do something it has not proved itself to be particularly adept at doing in the past. Namely, it will have to satisfy Nationalists that its reactions are evenhanded, aimed in a non-partisan fashion at the correct targets.
The dismembered parade commission will also face similar decisions. It will also have to prove its objectivity. Either way, the British government and its Northern secretary, Mo Mowlam will have to be at their firmest.
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Bertie Ahern, the Irish taoiseach, is also facing some stiff choices, and because it is in the nature of the man, he has made it clear that he intends to follow through on his decisions. He has publicly stated that he is not going to tolerate any threats to the enforcement of the agreement. He is spelling out his determination to use the full rigor of the law against them.
Oddly enough, the bulk of the internal Republican opposition to the agreement is based south of the border. Obviously, this was the case at the Provisional Sinn Fein annual meeting, although it must be added that the degree of opposition there was minuscule. Still, Republican Sinn Fein is still very much in existence, while the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, under the moral leadership of Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, has also gained slightly in strength.
When one realizes the damage inflicted by the Provisional IRA and its huge degree of endurance with relatively few volunteers, one cannot possibly underestimate the potential of either of the two dissident organizations to create an inordinate level of mayhem.
The Irish government is certainly aware of the danger. It may very well be that the recent killing of a young Republican engaged in an abortive armed robbery is an indication of the sort of response likely in the future.
This is not to claim that the government has already opted to take any definite line, but merely to suggest that security chiefs can detect a new hardening in attitude against organizations that the Republic is quite capable of dealing with in its own way. Because most of the dissidents are well known to the security forces and because the majority spend most of their lives within the Republic, they can expect that few hostages will be taken.
The surprising thing about the opposition to the agreement by segments of the two communities sharing the island is that it concentrated on the peripherals rather than the main frame.
In the South, the expected backlash on the question of Articles Two and Three of the Constitution simply did not emerge. Instead, we are back in the old conundrum of what really constitutes the majority of the people of Ireland. And, of course, we all come to the same conclusion. The majority are Nationalists while the reunification of the island is prevented by the stubbornness and unwillingness of the true minority to abide by democratic principles while they are backed by the British.
The situation was altered utterly with the British admission some time ago that it no longer had any strategic interest in Northern Ireland. It has been further altered in the agreement with the removal of the Government of Ireland Act, which insisted on sovereignty. Now the British have finally conceded that the future of the statelet is solely a matter for the majority of people who live there.
Thus, the Unionists have achieved the goal they wanted. They will keep it for so long as they can prove they deserve it. It is not crazily inconceivable that if the North is governed fairly and well that at some future time the majority of Catholics might not grow to share the same aspiration as the majority Protestants.
It is even more likely that a Northern majority may wish to share so much in the new wealth of the Celtic Tiger that it will decide to forge closer links with the tribe.
In such circumstances, how could the Republic possibly attempt to force its will on either section?
For that matter, it is not impossible to foresee a situation whereby, through the intergovernmental institutions established by the agreement, that the Irish and British governments might evolve to form an alliance never before attained by the peoples of both neighboring islands.
All kinds of everything are now possible. Despite any short-term difficulties, which will unquestionably arise, the island of Ireland is a brave, new place. Where it will go from here, nobody really knows. But if the people really wish it to be, then the future can only be much better.