Suspended animation in Northern Ireland

Posted: Aug 14, 2001 12:00 AM
BELFAST, Northern Ireland - Like an American labor dispute in which the Taft-Hartley Act has been invoked, Northern Ireland has begun a six-week "cooling off" period following the suspension and then reinstatement by the British government of its Catholic-Protestant "unity" assembly. That assembly, formed out of the ashes of the Omagh terrorist bombing three years ago this month, was supposed to be the vehicle by which the violence of the last 30 years, if not the animosity of four centuries, was put to rest. But (and there is always a "but" here) things fell apart last week over the issue of trust. Even the pro-republican Irish Times understands the main impediment to a resolution of the conflict. It editorialized last week, "The proof that republicans have chosen between politics and the gun is not actually at hand." Gerry Adams, the leader of the Irish Republican Army's (IRA) political wing, Sinn Fein, claimed a significant breakthrough following an IRA pledge to put its considerable arms stockpile "completely and verifiably beyond use." But Protestant leader David Trimble, who resigned last month as the provisional government's first minister and who has felt the heat from the more strident Democratic Unionist Party headed by the firebrand, the Rev. Ian Paisley, issued a statement in which he demanded to see the destruction process begin. Trimble said unionists have heard promises from the IRA before and have yet to see them fulfilled. He said actions, not words, are needed. Even before the latest developments, there were sporadic shootings by the ever present paramilitary forces of both sides. In the last two weeks, there were two shootings in Belfast and a large car bomb exploded in a London suburb. The death toll since "the troubles" began is 3,600. Each death spawns a new grievance. No wonder Northern Ireland is often compared to the Middle East. Most Catholics and Protestants openly state their strong desire for peace, but worry about the fanatics on both sides who will settle for nothing less than their own way. One Catholic woman told me, "We all speak English, but we speak a different language." The reason the British government suspended the assembly last Saturday, giving negotiators six more weeks to move the process forward, was because it feared radicals would prevail in the election of what was supposed to be a Protestant to the top administrative post. Things are so dicey here that even the location and number of weapons the IRA has promised to put "beyond use" is kept secret by the Irish and British governments for fear Ulster Unionists might further question the sincerity of the IRA and sabotage peace prospects. Of course, the Ulster Unionists see it differently. They think the government of Tony Blair is weak and wants a peace at any price for its own political reasons. It is, therefore, suspicious (and with some justification) that London is not committed to preserving the Protestant way of life. The IRA is turning up the heat by threatening to withdraw all of its disarmament pledges unless Ulster unionists accept its pledges. But the withdrawal of a pledge carries less weight than the cessation of process once begun. It is because the IRA has not begun the process that the other side doesn't trust it. Given its choice of the gun and the bomb over the ballot, people are right to ask for a visible demonstration that the IRA has been "converted" and plans to study war no more in the pursuit of its objective of a united Ireland. Writing in the Belfast Telegraph last week, David Trimble noted, "Minds might have been put at ease if we had seen a real commitment to nonviolence. Instead, we have seen around 100 paramilitary murders since the (Good Friday) Agreement." Distrust and hate are difficult to overcome. In six weeks, they'll know whether they can find it within themselves to reject these twin evils and build a better future for Northern Ireland or whether, as so often has occurred in the past, they will allow political pressure and their lower natures to get the better of them.