Irish Peace Accord

For 30 years, it had been an unwinnable religious war of endless reprisals, fuelled by hate and hopelessness.

Irish Peace Accord

For 30 years, it had been an unwinnable religious war of endless reprisals, fuelled by hate and hopelessness. Protestant and Catholic indiscriminately bombed, machine-gunned, garotted and tortured one another, killing and maiming hundreds of bystanders in the process, and adding the Falls Road, Shankill, Enniskillen and Belfast to history's chronicle of bloody-minded futility. "The Troubles," the Irish of every persuasion called it euphemistically. But it was merciless urban guerrilla warfare waged by men and boys in balaclavas, and with the death toll at more than 3,400, there seemed no end in sight. Then, on Good Friday last week after 22 months of negotiation, Northern Ireland's political leaders and the British and Irish governments announced they had reached a landmark deal to end the conflict. It went far beyond anything contemplated before, including a governing role for the Irish republic, disarmament of the warring sides and the first parliament for Northern Ireland since a power-sharing deal failed in 1974. "I believe today that courage has triumphed," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who played a major role in brokering the agreement along with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and former U.S. senator George Mitchell, chairman of the negotiations. "We have seized the initiative from the men of violence," declared Ahern. "Let's not relinquish it, now or ever."

Yet while the leaders of the Catholics' Sinn Fein, political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and of the Protestant, pro-British Ulster Unionists endorsed the agreement, a lasting peace for Northern Ireland's 1.6 million people is far from assured. Ahern said the pact was "a new beginning for all of us," but the rivals he had helped bring together were less than enthusiastic. Unionist leader David Trimble emerged from the final session at Stormont Castle, headquarters of British administration in Belfast, to challenge Sinn Fein to end its "dirty, squalid little terrorist war." Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, who has achieved movie-star status among Northern Ireland Catholics, was more restrained. "There is still not peace; the agreement is not a settlement," he said. "But for now, it is time to draw a breath, it is time to reflect." As Irish nationalists debate the deal before formally accepting it, he said, "they will come to this document with skepticism, but also with hope." Lord John Alderdice, leader of the non-sectarian Alliance party, said the agreement was "a political settlement. Whether it's a peace settlement remains to be seen."

Even before the document was approved, hardliners on both sides were accusing their leaders of selling out. At one point, Rev. Ian Paisley, the 72-year-old Protestant firebrand who has accused the Unionists of betrayal, broke through the Stormont Castle gates with about 400 supporters waving the British flag and shouting "No surrender!" They were stopped by riot police and guard dogs. Sources in Belfast said the Loyalist Volunteer Force, believed to have been responsible for the murder of a dozen Catholics in the past year, had already rejected the Stormont accord.

At the same time, two factions have broken away from the IRA. One group is believed to have been behind a recent attempt to take a 500-kg car bomb onto a ferry preparing to leave for England. The other, calling itself Continuity IRA, has promised a fresh campaign of violence. And both the British and Irish governments fear the push for peace could heighten hostilities in some quarters. But for the moment, the stage managers of last week's drama were upbeat. "I have been in politics for 30 years and never have I felt this sense of gratification," said Mitchell, a former senator from Maine. He gave significant credit to U.S. President Bill Clinton, who made a half-hour call to Mitchell at 3:15 a.m. Washington time on Good Friday, about nine hours before the deal was done. Clinton was later vague about any pledges he made, but the pact's supporters hope he will visit Northern Ireland soon. Mitchell also said a Thursday midnight deadline, missed by 12 hours, was essential: "We would have been talking for 10 more years if we hadn't set the deadline."

The agreement, crafted to preserve Ulster's links with Britain while forging closer ties with the South, will be put to referendums on May 22 in both Northern Ireland and the Irish republic. Among other things, it provides for the creation of a 108-seat Northern Ireland Assembly to which members will be elected in June. Measures proposed in the assembly will need 70 per cent support to pass, protecting Catholics from bloc voting by Protestants who outnumber them two to one in the population and will likely outnumber them in the assembly as well.

In addition, there will be a North-South Council composed of ministers from the republic and representatives from the assembly to make policy in areas of common interest such as agriculture and transportation. But in a key last-minute concession to Protestants, who feared the council could lead to the IRA's dream of a united Ireland, decisions will be subject to the approval of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish Parliament. The republic's referendum, meanwhile, will also seek approval to abandon Dublin's long-standing territorial claim to the North. Mitchell said outstanding issues such as prisoners and policing would be handled fairly. John White, a former loyalist guerrilla and a delegate to the talks from one of the smaller unionist parties, said that freeing paramilitary prisoners on both sides would strengthen the chances for lasting peace. "Releasing the prisoners," White said, "will give both loyalists and republicans a stake in the process."

If voters in the North and the South endorse the agreement, a three-member commission headed by retired Canadian general John de Chastelain, former chief of the defence staff, will begin the delicate task of collecting and disposing of thousands of weapons held by paramilitary groups. De Chastelain, who had participated in attempts to get the peace talks moving since 1995, told Maclean's he was not sure which units would co-operate. "Clearly, there are some who won't want to give up their guns, but we know that." Added de Chastelain: "The matter of decommissioning weapons is as much philosophical as practical. People can always get more weapons, but this will drastically reduce the number of highly dangerous ones they already have." If warring factions "want the settlement to succeed, they don't need their guns and they should give them up."

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien described the Stormont breakthrough as "historic." Canadians of Irish origin were similarly optimistic. Seamus Donaghy, social director of Edmonton's Irish Sports and Social Society and originally from Ulster's County Tyrone, said relatives there had told him "everybody - in the North and the South - is just hoping and praying it will last."

Not quite everybody. Across Northern Ireland, reaction to the Stormont accord was mixed. Pauline Gilmore, a 33-year-old Belfast Protestant whose boyfriend was killed by the IRA 15 years ago, said flatly: "Protestants on the ground will never accept this deal. From the moment it is signed, people like me will be working to oppose it." Michael Donnelly, a 49-year-old former IRA partisan in Londonderry, is among those who see the pact as a sellout. "Any agreement which doesn't end British rule in this country is a betrayal," he said. "I believe that armed struggle will continue by true republicans."

But there were many others, weary of war, who felt that the time for armed struggle in Northern Ireland had long since ended. Maria McShane, a 40-year-old Catholic from the border county of Armagh, said she wept as she watched the agreement concluded on television. She was pregnant in 1976 when she lost an eye in a bomb blast. Four years ago, loyalist gunmen shot and killed her 17-year-old son, Gavin, and a friend while they played video games during school lunch break. "I've been crying all day," said McShane. "I really hope this means an end to violence forever in Northern Ireland." Anne Wright, a 20-year-old Protestant student in Belfast, was delighted there was a deal. "The young people of Northern Ireland are sick of the squabbling," she said. "We want jobs and a chance to live our lives in peace and be able to walk the streets safely at night. I hope this is the beginning of a new political era." That much seemed assured. No matter how well the Good Friday peace pact succeeds, the troubled province has taken a giant leap forward.

Maclean's April 20, 1998