The year 1999 taught us that it is much easier to sign an agreement than to implement it.
The word crisis was almost never out of the news in relation to the Good Friday peace agreement. The hope engendered by the signing of the agreement the year before seemed doomed. The reality of the intransigence of Northern Irish politics looked set to destroy yet another attempt at the resolving the 30-year-old conflict as the dispute over guns and government dragged on, month after month. The Unionists refused to budge on their demands for disarmament and the IRA scorned them. Sinn Fein began to talk as if actual decommissioning, whose deadline was May 2000, was not in the agreement at all — merely the aspiration to decommission.
By the late spring, one participant characterized the mood as being one of pessimism and frustration. The headlines caught that mood of near despair. There was talk of the agreement "unraveling," of it being in "free fall," and of the need to "park" it.
Against this gloomy background of political inertia the North’s killers were at work, murdering six people, including a human rights lawyer, Rosemary Nelson, a grandmother, Elizabeth O’Neill, and a writer, Eamonn Collins. Though the number of dead was the lowest for any year since the conflict known as the Troubles began, it was a grim reminder that should politics yet again fail the people of Ireland, the price to pay would be a heavy one.
The summer came and another disappointment brought hopes low with the failure of the power-sharing executive to take office as a result of the continuing refusal of the Ulster Unionist Party to enter government with Sinn Fein unless the IRA began to disarm. At this point, it seemed the agreement was going to wither on the bough with the advance of fall.
Of course, it did not turn out that way at all.
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Enter former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell. He chaired a marathon review of the problem and forced the two conflicting parties, Sinn Fein and the UUP, to negotiate directly with each other. At the same time he clamped down on leaks and word spinning. As the year came to a close, he brought about what most thought was impossible: the implementation of the agreement’s political structures.
As the millennium dawns, the North has a new power-sharing government and cross-border institutions, a combination that never before had been achieved. The logjam was broken.
It is true that a new one is threatening as the year 2000 approaches and the demand for paramilitary disarmament once more emerges. But the potential it has to block progress like it did before has receded. The republican movement knows that its commitment to the political path has gone too far now to be reversed. The logic of that has inexorably been pushing both the IRA and Sinn Fein in a certain direction — toward the abandonment of the physical-force tradition within mainstream republicanism.
Of course, no one can be smug and take it for granted that this will inevitably happen. One hundred years ago, the Fenian tradition seemed dead. But the combination of Britain’s brutal repression and political prevarication gave it a new lease of life. That, too, we hope, is a thing of the past. Ireland now has the opportunity of breaking the vicious cycle of history in which one injustice perpetrates another. And we can confidently say that it will seize that opportunity and thus create a momentous beginning to the new millennium.