Nine years after Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement, which led to a truce between Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists, the government of Northern Ireland was formed on May 8 of this year. The Reverend Ian Paisley, a protestant and head of the Democratic Unionist Party, together with Martin McGuiness of the mainly Catholic Sinn Fein party, were sworn in as the new government’s leader and deputy leader respectively. The two men put aside years of bitter rivalry and brought the peace process to a successful conclusion.
After decades of violence and the loss of more than 3,700 lives, direct rule of Northern Ireland by London has come to an end. Earlier this month the protestant Democratic Unionists and the predominantly Catholic Sinn Fein agreed to share power and a new government was installed.
Dennis Staunton, Washington correspondent for The Irish Times, says that most people in Ireland approve of the new government: “Oh it has been tremendously positive. The symbolism of what happened in Northern Ireland this month has been so tremendous that nobody on that island could possible have been unaffected by it. It is really a very important moment psychologically, emotionally as well as politically for the people of Ireland.”
Noel McAdams, political correspondent of the Belfast Telegraph, says people in Northern Ireland are encouraged by events, but remain watchful as to how the new government will behave: “I think people tend to be cautiously optimistic. There are some concerns that by nature these two parties are diametrically opposed to each other for generations,” says Mr. McAdams. “So, it may still not work. But at the same time, now there is no major opposition in the assembly. There is a stronger consensus, so it should have better chance of working than ever before.”
Douglas Fraser of the Scottish newspaper, The Herald, says individuals chosen to lead the new government are the same ones who in the past have thrown up obstacles to compromise. Mr. Fraser says those individuals bear a heavy responsibility to sustain the new order: “I think in Northern Ireland the participants in the process realized that they have exhausted violence as an avenue that has got them nowhere. In an open Europe, both Britain and the Republic of Ireland are surging ahead in terms of strong economic growth, and there is no future for continuing the politics of the past in Northern Ireland.”
Many observers cite the close relationship between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern as one of the key factors which led to the political breakthrough. Mr. Blair is leaving office soon, but Mr. Ahern, facing an election this week, hopes for another term. The Irish Times' Dennis Staunton says positive developments in Northern Ireland favor Mr. Ahern’s re-election bid: “Well it ought to help Mr. Ahern in that he has been Irish prime minister for the last 10 years, and undoubtedly his most significant achievement is his role in the Northern Ireland peace process.”
Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern took office within weeks of each other in 1997. Mr. Blair leaves office on June 27. British journalist Douglas Fraser says Prime Minister Blair deserves enormous credit for creating the conditions for a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland: “Ten years after Tony Blair came in, obviously, everybody is looking at his legacy dominated by Iraq,” says Mr. Fraser. “But what everybody will give him credit for is the sustained economic growth in Britain, and for delivering on Northern Ireland after nearly 40 years of difficulty in the province. It is something very widely recognized and it is a very significant, lasting achievement.”
Not to be overlooked, says the Irish Times’ Dennis Staunton, is the role of the United States in acting as an honest broker among former belligerents: “The most important single decision that the United States made was in 1994, when former President Bill Clinton agreed to allow Gerry Adams – the leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, IRA -- the Irish Catholic armed struggle force -- to visit the United States. And this was against the wishes of the British government and against the wishes of the U.S. State Department. And it was before the Irish Republican Army had agreed to a ceasefire. They were still killing people in the state. And Clinton sent former Senator George Mitchell who really was the man who brokered the deal between the two sides. The peace in Northern Ireland is a very significant American foreign policy achievement.”
Analysts say that more than at any time in the past, one can be optimistic that the people of Northern Ireland can find a way to work together within a normal political process. Although frustrations, even setbacks, are certain to occur, the possibility of a better future through the new government has brought hope to Northern Ireland. This edition of International Press Club was written by Subhash Vohra. I’m Carol Castiel.
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