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Editorial Back to the future

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

British Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam’s announcement this week that as of March 10 the British parliament will be ready to devolve powers to the new Northern Ireland assembly should concentrate the minds of those still squabbling over the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Already, a short, sharp debate in that chamber led to the unexpected vote on Monday in support of the deal done between the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP last December. Then, the two parties worked out the numbers and scope of the new departments and cross-border bodies.

The assembly’s approval and Mowlam’s deadline have at long last started things moving toward a fully devolved Northern Ireland government.

This will be the first time in a quarter of a century that the troubled province will enjoy self-government. On Jan. 1, 1974, the ill-fated power-sharing executive took office, only to succumb four months later to the strike spearheaded by the Ulster Workers’ Council but coordinated by the Ulster Defense Association.

It is not a happy precedent. Indeed, there are problems that still could derail the latest agreement as it heads toward full implementation, not least of which is the continuing disagreement over paramilitary disarmament. But the situation the parties face now is nothing like that which confronted the executive 25 years ago.

In 1974, there were many responsibilities that the British refused to hand over to the Stormont Assembly. The provisions in the Sunningdale Agreement for a council of Ireland were, in fact, never enacted. The British have not made the same mistake twice. The cross-border bodies will come into force with the other provisions as spelled out in the Good Friday Agreement.

In 1974, the strongest opponents of the new government were the UDA and the Ulster Volunteer Force. Also, the IRA’s violent campaign continued unabated and republicans denounced the assembly as a sellout and a reimposition of another Stormont.

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Twenty-five years on, the loyalists as represented by the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party are among the agreement’s strongest supporters. The IRA’s campaign has ended, as has that of the UDA and UVF. Sinn Fein is on board. It is the so-called moderate Unionists of David Trimble’s party who present the greatest threat to the new arrangements. They are still threatening to refuse to fully implement them until the IRA has begun to decommission at least some of its huge stack of weaponry and explosives. By continuing to bar Sinn Fein from taking its seats in the new executive, the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, could trigger a crisis from which the assembly might never recover. Of course, the paramilitaries and their representatives must share the blame for this situation by clinging to their arms dumps like children to toys. But it would indeed be a crowning irony for Ireland if it was the so-called moderates who brought about the collapse of the agreement through their efforts to deny former extremists their wish to work within the new institutions.

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