The people of Ireland, North and South, hold destiny in their hands this week. Will they turn their backs on decades of conflict and march purposefully into an uncertain future? Or will they cling to a past that, as most reasonable people recognize, by definition offers no future at all. The world will know after the votes are tallied from Friday’s joint referenda.
A Yes vote is a vote for the future. It is a vote for hope, for the promise of peace, for the chance to build bridges between communities that have been divided for generations.
A No vote is a vote for the past. It is a vote for hopelessness, for a return to violence, for continued fear and distrust.
From the traditional Nationalist perspective, the Belfast Agreement is far from a perfect blueprint. But the same can be said of it from the Unionist perspective. It is, rather, a work of compromise – itself a quality and a spirit that has always been conspicuously absent from what passes for political discourse in Northern Ireland. Clearly, since neither Nationalists nor Unionists are in a position to impose their solution on the problem, only compromise offers a viable way forward.
The agreement offers no guarantees. It doesn’t, for example, guarantee a united Ireland, but neither does it guarantee the union with Britain. Both outcomes are made conditional on the consent of the majority in Northern Ireland, whatever it might be.
This in itself is a remarkable change in terms of British constitutional practice – sovereignty has been shifted from the parliament and placed in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland. What it does offer is the opportunity for Northern Nationalists and Unionists to forge their future together. Through a comprehensive package that includes the election of the North’s own assembly, the impaneling of various commissions and the creation of cross-border institutions, the Irish and British governments are betting that the deep-seated suspicion that is at the core of what divides the people of Northern Ireland will erode over time. This is a pragmatic approach, one that recognizes and seeks to address the harsh realities of this polarized society. The alternatives, namely the status quo or an imposed solution, are simply unacceptable. Indeed, this is at one level a family dispute, and like any family dispute, outsiders can facilitate an agreement but can only insist upon one with the risk of making things worse.
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Irish Americans have demonstrated over many generations their concern with finding a solution to the problems of the divided island from which their ancestors came. That concern has kept the consciousness of the problem alive when many, both in Dublin and London, would have preferred it to be ignored.
Irish America attitudes toward the agreement reflect those of their cousins in Ireland. They have been debating its pros and cons for weeks, listening to the opinions of the different shades of Nationalism. Interestingly enough, it has been frequently the case that those most stridently advocating a No vote have been the older generations of Irish Americans.
The more recent immigrants, especially those from the North, have tended to favor a Yes vote. It is easy to see why. Many of those who came here fled fear and intimidation; others came here as a result of their commitment to the republican movement. They know firsthand the horrors of sectarian war. They know, too, how easy it is to fight a battle if you are 2,500 miles away from the battlefield. It is Northern Irish Catholics, both here and in Northern Ireland, who are overwhelmingly in favor of a Yes vote. That alone should make Irish Americans who oppose it give pause.
To be sure, the best judges of when to call a truce are those who have fought the fight. That time has come. The only way to ensure that the truce becomes a permanent feature of Irish life is to lend our voices to those who are calling for a Yes vote and endorse this agreement heartily.