FROM THE ARCHIVES
'New beginning' hailed
The next step: Voters get say
By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 4/11/1998
ELFAST - In a triumph of diplomacy and stamina, Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists in Northern Ireland reached a historic settlement yesterday that may resolve one of the world's most intractable conflicts.
After 33 hours of round-the-clock negotiations, George J. Mitchell, the former US senator from Maine who chaired the talks, announced that a sometimes torturous peace process had produced a deal after nearly two years of stop-and-go talks. Reached in a political culture where compromise has traditionally been considered treasonous, the agreement came 17 hours after a deadline imposed by Mitchell.
The deal calls for a series of constitutional changes and the creation of governmental machinery to reassure unionists that they can remain British while offering nationalists the means to protect their interests and the possibility of Irish unity.
''The people of Northern Ireland will decide whether or not this structure functions. And I encourage them to tell their political leaders, loudly and clearly, and without equivocation, we want this to work. If they do, it will work,'' said an exhausted Mitchell, who insisted the negotiators press on past the deadline and who, like many others, did not sleep for two days.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, who spent the last three days ensconced in a drab office building on the palatial grounds of Stormont in East Belfast trying to broker the deal, emerged into the chilly afternoon sunlight to praise the eight parties that hammered out the agreement.
''Courage has triumphed,'' said a sleepy but triumphant Blair.
''This is a day we should treasure,'' added Ahern, who shuttled between negotiations and his mother's funeral on Wednesday. ''This is a new era of friendship and reconciliation.''
As the two leaders finished their remarks and shook hands warmly, the skies turned dark and a snow shower broke out - a climatic reminder that the settlement aimed at ending a centuries-old conflict between Christians was reached on Good Friday, the most solemn day on the Christian calendar, commemorating the death of Jesus Christ for their salvation. So emotional was the moment that some British and Irish journalists betrayed their objectivity and applauded.
The settlement, which seeks to end a conflict that has taken more than 3,000 lives since 1969 and poisoned relations between Britain and Ireland for centuries, must be approved by voters May 22 in separate referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. If approved, the settlement would call for June elections to create a local assembly for the first time since 1972, when the Northern Ireland parliament was suspended by the British government at the height of the violence here.
Extremists on both sides of the religious and political divide are expected to use violence in an attempt to wreck the agreement before and after the referendums. While all of the parties indicated support for the agreement, it remains unclear whether some of them - especially the Ulster Unionists, who represent mainstream Protestants, and Sinn Fein, whose voters traditionally supported the IRA - can convince their constituents to support its terms.
The settlement will not suddenly transform what remains a bitterly segregated society. Only about 10 percent of the population live in mixed neighborhoods, and nearly all children attend segregated schools.
Ever since its creation in 1920, Northern Ireland has been a source of bitter conflict between the neighboring islands of Britain and Ireland. Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland aspire to unity with the Irish Republic, while Protestant unionists want to remain British citizens.
In the late 1960s, after decades of discrimination at the hands of the dominant Protestants, Catholics mounted a civil rights movement fashioned on that of American blacks. The unionist authorities repressed it brutally, and the resulting disorder brought British troops onto the streets and breathed life back into a dormant Irish Republican Army. For the next three decades, the IRA waged a guerrilla war with British security forces that cost thousands of their lives and those of civilians, while Protestant extremists killed Catholics.
In 1994, the IRA called a cease-fire, and loyalist paramilitary groups soon followed suit. But the IRA broke its cease-fire in 1996, charging that Blair's predecessor, John Major, was not fully committed to the process because he needed unionists to maintain his narrow parliamentary majority.
Blair's election last May brought new momentum to the peace talks, and a series of concessions to the IRA produced a new cease-fire last July. The election last year of Ahern, whose Fianna Fail is believed able to deliver the constitutional changes needed, produced conditions that enhanced a search for a settlement.
The last such attempt to resolve the conflict collapsed in 1974 when most Protestants rebelled against a plan that called for a power-sharing government. This settlement is given a considerably better chance because its supporters include representatives of the loyalist paramilitary groups that orchestrated the general strike leading to the fall of the 1974 agreement.
Copies of the 67-page agreement will be mailed to every home in Ireland, north and south. The settlement calls for constitutional change and the establishment of new governmental bodies that will redefine relationships between Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and the United Kingdom.
The Irish government will ask voters to approve changes to constitutional amendments that define the Irish nation and lay territorial claim over Northern Ireland. In return, the British government will repeal the 1920 law that created Northern Ireland, replacing it with a guarantee Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom as long as a majority living there so desire.
The settlement also calls for:
A new 108-seat assembly that, like those approved last year in Scotland and Wales, will administer local government; a North-South council that will oversee authorities that will administer areas of mutual interest on the island, including agriculture, tourism, education, health, and transportation; a new agreement to replace the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which launched the beginning of the partnership between Britain and Ireland to find an accommodation in Northern Ireland; a British-Irish council to oversee relations between the two governments and the assemblies in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man; a commission to recommend changes in policing in Northern Ireland; and commissions to oversee equality issues, the surrender of illegally held weapons, and the early releases for paramilitary prisoners.
Issues involving paramilitary groups became a sticking point to the agreement yesterday as the talks dragged into a second day of bargaining. Members of the Ulster Unionists, the largest party whose approval was essential to the settlement, held out over concerns that the governments had not put pressure on paramilitary groups to turn in some of their vast arsenal, and because they do not believe prisoners whom they consider terrorists should receive leniency.
Blair's press secretary, Alistair Campbell, said the deal was clinched after Blair reassured the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble that any elected official allied with a group that engages in violence can be ejected from the assembly. Blair also assured Trimble that steps to persuade paramilitary groups to turn in weapons would begin immediately, although few believe that will occur soon.
Campbell also said that at Blair's request, President Clinton telephoned his assurances and support to Trimble, Ahern, and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. He said Clinton's intervention ''was helpful. It helped them to get a sense of how much people wanted this to happen.''
Speaking from the White House, Clinton, who has taken an active role in supporting the peace process, praised Blair and Ahern and asked the various parties to remain determined in the face of expected violence from extremists.
Sinn Fein has close links to the IRA, and the continuation of the IRA's cease-fire is considered essential to the success of the settlement. Sinn Fein officials did not say whether they would urge their supporters to back the settlement. They maintained that they need to consult their party executive committee and hear debate at the party's annual conference in Dublin next week.
Trimble, meanwhile, faced a mutiny among some of his parliamentary colleagues who think the agreement gives Dublin too much say in day-to-day governing of Northern Ireland and is not hard enough on paramilitary groups. Trimble's first test comes today, when he asks his party executive board to approve the deal. That same board gave him a standing ovation Thursday night when he asked for their backing to reach a compromise.
Trimble, who has carved out a reputation as a hard-liner, took enormous political risks in making the deal. The last unionist leader to do so was unceremoniously dumped. But Trimble, who refused to speak with Sinn Fein officials throughout the negotiations, remained defiant, saying he wanted Adams to unequivocally renounce violence.
Adams and his party's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, appeared drained but satisfied as they concluded a difficult process in which they brought their former comrades in the IRA in from the cold.
Adams credited Mitchell, Ahern, and Blair with ''creating the focus that broke the stalemate.'' But he also had words for the heartland, and hard-liners who are suspicious of a compromise on the republican ideal of a united Ireland.
''This is a phase in our struggle. That struggle must continue until it reaches its final goal,'' said Adams. ''We believe this can be achieved in our lifetime.''
So tired were negotiators yesterday morning that members of the Social Democratic and Labor Party were halfway through their sausage rolls before they realized it was Good Friday and that, as practicing Catholics, they were forbidden to eat meat.
John Hume, the leader of moderate nationalists in Northern Ireland, and the man widely viewed as the architect of the peace process by reaching out to Adams, was spent but overjoyed.
''Only once in a generation does an opportunity like this come along,'' said Hume.
David Ervine, whose Progressive Unionist Party represents loyalist paramilitary members, spoke for many negotiators as he walked away from Stormont after a draining few days.
''See ya,'' Ervine said, ''I'm going to the pub.''
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 4/11/1998.