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New Hope for Northern Ireland

The British province of Northern Ireland is approaching the new year with a renewed sense of optimism, following months of political uncertainty.

In October, Northern Ireland's coalition government was at the brink of collapse, when the Irish Republican Army announced it would begin disarming. Pressure had mounted on the IRA since the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States. Onetime supporters said the IRA's campaign of violence was no longer viable.

So in a carefully scripted chain of events, the IRA in late October was asked to disarm by Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA's political wing, the Sinn Fein.

Mr. Adams told a party conference that opponents of Northern Ireland's 1998 Good Friday peace agreement were going to blame the IRA if the government crumbled over the disarmament question. "It is clear to the Sinn Fein leadership that the issue of IRA weapons has been used as an excuse to undermine the peace process, as well as the Good Friday agreement," he said. "The issue of weapons must be resolved. But not just IRA weapons. British weapons as well."

The next day, the IRA announced it had begun disarmament, and international observers confirmed it. Within 24 hours, Britain began dismantling some of its military installations near the province's border with Ireland.

The first minister of Northern Ireland's government, David Trimble, canceled his resignation. He was re-instated in early November, after overcoming opposition from hardline Protestant lawmakers.

Northern Ireland has suffered through 30 years of violence between its Roman Catholic and Protestant communities, but Mr. Trimble says he believes the worst of the troubles are over. "I think there is a sense in people that there will not be a return to the situation as it was half-a-dozen years ago," he said. "Nobody, I think, expects a return to where we were six or seven years ago. At the same time, there's large areas of uncertainty, and there are areas, interfaith areas, such as those in North Belfast, where there are still a lot of problems at the street level."

Former Irish President Mary Robinson, who now heads the United Nations human rights office, says foreign governments played a key role in helping Northern Ireland's peace process. "I do see it now from a wider perspective, how important it is to secure and build on this peace process. I get asked about it in areas of conflict: 'What was it that made a difference in Northern Ireland?' And I think some of the ingredients were the extraordinary facilitating from outside. Facilitating by the United States, through Senator George Mitchell, the facilitating by the European Union, all of these supports to bring Northern Ireland out of a longterm conflict," Ms. Robinson said.

Now, with violence diminished and more political stability, the people of Northern Ireland will be looking to their government to promote the economic and social benefits they want, after so many decades of turmoil.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001