From the beginning, the Northern Ireland peace process has thrived on crisis — or at least a sense of crisis. So far, thankfully, each has been resolved and the work of achieving a settlement has gone ahead. First the crisis, and all the talk of "staring into the abyss." Then, when a deal has been done, and the abyss recedes, the slow, painful progress continues.
It is well to remember this as we face another long Good Friday.
A year ago, as politicians squabbled over the terms of agreement that is meant to provide the basis for Northern Ireland’s future, a sense of the impossibility of what was being attempted — to find a solution to one of the longest-running political problems in the world — prevailed until the very last moment. But agreement was achieved — in no small measure thanks to President Clinton’s intervention — in spite of everything. And, most important of all, it was an agreement later ratified by the vast majority of the Irish people, North and South.
Those who might now be balking at implementing the terms of that agreement must bear that in mind. This is not an agreement imposed from above, by government diktat. It is an expression of the will of ordinary people who have suffered through decades of violence and who are prepared to accept the kind of compromise the agreement contains. Ideologues and extremists are opposed to compromise. But without it normal politics, and indeed society as we know it, is impossible.
The problem in the year since the last Good Friday crisis is that while progress has been made on many fronts, the crucial issue of paramilitary weapons and what to do with them was shunted down the road until, inevitably, in the absence of any compromise, it became a roadblock.
Everyone knows that problems are rarely solved by postponement. But it was hoped that in the intervening 11 months or so since the Good Friday peace agreement was signed enough would be done to build up sufficient trust so that a compromise could be reached and decommissioning would lose its explosive potential to wreck the accord.
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Prisoners were released, a commission was established to look at the problem of policing, plans to establish a human rights body were announced, and, late in December, David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader and First Minister elect of the new assembly, and the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon, his deputy, hammered out an accord on the make-up of the institutions that are supposed to come into effect this week. However, all was predicated on resolving the weapons problem, which had the power to render everything else null and void.
This appalling prospect has concentrated the minds of party leaders and both prime ministers. They come to the crisis knowing that in spite of real progress being made, the period since the signing of the agreement last April has seen the development of a political vacuum. And in Northern Ireland a political vacuum is usually filled with blood. Last year’s murderous summer was a reminder of that.
It is too late now for recriminations as to who was mainly responsible for creating that vacuum. What has to be done this week is ensure that the vacuum will be replaced by the institutions that express the aspirations of the Irish people on both sides of the border. Unionists will have to accept Sinn Fein into the executive as agreed upon. And Sinn Fein will have to fulfill its obligations, so that disarmament can start, as envisioned in the agreement. It is simply a question of modalities, not of principle. We are no longer arguing over whether in principle Sinn Fein should be allowed to take its seats or the IRA should disarm. By signing up to the agreement, Unionists and republicans have accepted both those propositions. It is surely not beyond human ingenuity to find a way that these principles can be put into practice