The bold experiment has finally begun.
After 18 months of crisis, stalemate and frustration in the Northern Ireland peace process, when at times some doubted that Protestant and Catholic, Unionist and Nationalist, Loyalist and Republican, would ever be brought together in government, the Good Friday peace agreement is at last being implemented. The assembly has met, the ministers have been assigned their portfolios, and the British government is ready to devolve power on Thursday at the same time as the Irish government replaces Articles 2 and 3 of the constitution and both sign into being the provisions for the various cross-border bodies.
The tortuous political process finally made this dramatic move forward after Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble’s success the previous Saturday when his party’s ruling body voted in favor of his proposal to form a power-sharing executive. It means that for the first time in the history of Northern Ireland, indeed in the history of Ireland, Unionists and Republicans will be in government together.
It has not been easy and it will not be easy. Experiments conducted in laboratories have the advantage of controlled environments. The scientist can create the circumstances most conducive to the successful outcome of his experiment. In political affairs, human beings, being what they are, this is rarely, if ever, possible, as was evidenced by what happened at the UUP council meeting on Saturday. Trimble only managed to convince 58 percent of his fellow Unionists to support him by promising another "review" of the situation in February. By then, he said, if the IRA had not begun the decommissioning process, he would resign as first minister of the government and bring his ministers with him.
Sinn Fein leaders have cried foul, saying — quite correctly — that this goes outside the terms of what had already been agreed upon under the guidance of the George Mitchell review. However, they have partly themselves to blame for Trimble’s gesture. While visiting the United States two weeks ago, Sinn Fein representatives Pat Doherty and Martin Ferris had panicked Unionists with their remarks casting doubt on any prospect for IRA weapons decommissioning. If they had not done so, it probably would not have been necessary for Trimble to offer such a concession to steady his ranks.
At any rate, come the end of January if there has been no move from the paramilitaries on the weapons issue, then it will be impossible for Trimble to continue in government. A Unionist revolt would be inevitable. That is the reality of the situation. Trimble has simply made it explicit.
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No doubt there will be many disputes and upsets to come. But an important — and somewhat ironic — fact should not be obscured. This is a bold experiment in consensual politics — one of the most elaborate, perhaps, ever constructed. And it is taking place in a state where consensus has never before existed. One brief attempt in 1974 collapsed in chaos and bloodshed, when the power-sharing executive was forced to resign on the heels to loyalist reaction. But 25 years later, the paramilitaries have exhausted their violent repertoire, and their leaders have come to the conclusion that killing and bombing will not achieve their aims.
It was a realization that did not come a moment too soon. Political violence had embittered and deepened the historical divisions to such an extant that many believed the gulf between the two communities was now unbridgeable.
It is fitting, then, that the new millennium should see this bold experiment in consensual politics taking place in a society so deeply divided. No one can predict the outcome or if it will be possible for such a divided society to sustain a power-sharing government. We know one thing: it can only succeed if political conflict is expressed politically, not violently, and can be resolved through the appropriate institutions.
Northern Ireland has now taken a decisive step in that direction.