Cal  Thomas

Belfast, Northern Ireland -- Hope springs eternal, even here, where republicans and unionists will try again next month to jumpstart the legislative assembly, which was supposed to have created a new era of cooperation and eventual unity in this troubled province.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams caused a stir last week when he said that republicans (the Roman Catholic minority wishing for a united Ireland ruled from Dublin) need to be prepared to eliminate the Irish Republican Army and thus the issue of IRA arms if they want the unionists (the Protestant majority wishing to continue their formal relationship with the British government) to credibly negotiate with them.

The dispute about IRA arms is what caused the latest suspension of the legislative assembly, formed out of the 1998 "Good Friday agreement" and designed to devolve power from London to a Northern Ireland government and an executive committee of ministers.

The architects of that agreement, unionist David Trimble and republican John Hume, won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work. While things are much better now -- from a more diverse police force to a sharp decline in instances of violence -- a consistently functioning government built on the confidence that all participants will live up to the agreement continues to elude the parties.

Unionists say that Adams has made statements and even promises before that he has not fulfilled. They wonder why anyone who claims to be committed to the political process would continue to cling to weapons. Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, says having arms is their "insurance policy" should the agreement fall apart. That registers in some quarters like a conditional marriage vow.

Jeffrey Donaldson represents a new face of unionism in Northern Ireland. Donaldson, who is a member of the British Parliament as well as the Northern Ireland legislative assembly, recently changed parties from the Ulster Unionist Party, headed by David Trimble, to the Ulster Democratic Unionist Party, headed by the controversial Rev. Ian Paisley. (There are at least seven political parties in N. Ireland.)

While Donaldson says he holds to all of the tenets of Paisley's brand of unionism, he tells me he thinks that, in the contemporary media age, "the way you present your message" is as important as the message itself.

Donaldson's reaction to Adams' statement about eliminating IRA arms so that a genuine peace might be achieved is pragmatic: "Adams follows a pattern. He's talked of these things before. The question is can the leadership deliver their constituents and organization?"

Cal Thomas

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Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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