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?"
Donaldson says he believes the terrorist attacks in the United States nearly three years ago have "helped us" in that Adams knows any terrorist incidents here would "close the doors of the White House to him." At this stage of the peace process, he says, Adams "doesn't want to be a pariah."
Fringe groups, called paramilitaries, continue to be a problem. They are self-appointed small organizations that have commissioned themselves to "defend" with arms their causes and to carry out terror attacks on those they believe get in the way of their objectives.
These groups are mostly composed of young, uneducated and bitter young men. Donaldson says their leaders wear "gold chains and drive fast cars" and serve as role models to people who have none. Donaldson believes if a lasting peace is to be attained in Northern Ireland, paramilitary members must be persuaded to seek an education and jobs, rather than the gun.
Even if the legislative assembly is restarted (after four suspensions since 1999) and even if things progress politically to the point of a consistently working and cooperative government, Donaldson predicts the unionists will prevail by virtue of the large Protestant majority here.
The big question remains whether those who have relied on the gun to get them this far will put aside violence and continue on the political path or take up arms again if their political objectives are not quickly achieved. Arms may have helped get them to this point, but democracy is their only future hope. Will they be smart enough to realize that? More importantly, as Donaldson asks, can they deliver their constituency and all of their leadership?
Those answers may come next month.
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