Ireland’s peace plan offers real change

Over Memorial Day weekend, voters in Northern Ireland shouted “yes” to a peace agreement with its neighbors in the south. As the world watched, 71 percent of voters — from Protestant Unionists to Roman Catholic Nationalists to Britons — passed an accord to elect a new government. British officials have said the agreement marks the end of a decades-long sectarian war. Although peace talks in the territory are not new, this accord is more than just empty rhetoric.
The predominantly Catholic Irish Republic now enters a course to revamp its constitution. The new agreement allows the majority pro-British Protestants in Northern Ireland to remain politically tied to the United Kingdom. But the minority Catholics now have more influence, as language in the agreement gives the North the option of breaking away from London under a majority vote. The Northern Ireland Assembly will hold an election June 25 to bring in a new, 108-seat assembly. This election keeps the agreement’s outcome in suspense, since opposition in the assembly can still block parts of the plan. Agreement supporters fear opponents would corrupt any new arrangements.
But Sinn Fein, potentially the biggest threat to the peace process, is likely to be supportive now that they have a role in Ireland’s politics. Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein’s leader, said disturbance to the peace process is a non-issue. But Sinn Fein, one of Ireland’s most powerful political parties, is the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, one of the world’s most notorious terrorist groups. For 30 years the IRA used guerrilla warfare to attempt to force Britain from the North. To many, the recent referendum shows that voters have abandoned the Republic’s constitutional claim to sovereignty in the area, which remained with the Empire when southern Ireland gained independence in 1922. The political tension turned visible in the years that followed. The Bloody Sunday of 26 years ago is still fresh in Ireland’s mind. From civil rights struggles in the 1960s to hunger strikes in the 1980s, Ireland’s history is one of violence, pain and death. Fractured for so many years, Ireland has finally found unity.
An August 1994 joint declaration between the Irish Republican Army and the Loyalist Military Command was a precursor to the recent agreement. The declaration called for cease-fires that reduced bloodshed in Northern Ireland. But backlashes to that declaration have occurred since. Talks of peace dwindled and more terrorist attacks surfaced. Recent talks about peace have been just that: talk.
Never before has such a consensus been reached in Ireland by all parties concerned. Before the referendum, it had been 200 years since people in Ireland last voted on the same issue. Given that 94 percent of voters in the Republic of Ireland supported the peace deal, the changes promised in the agreement are real this time. Because of support in numbers, the last few years have yielded dramatic global turnarounds. From the collapse of the Berlin Wall to the fall of communism in Russia, recent transformations changed the way of life many people had known. Soon the world will see shattered concrete walls and ripped-apart barb-wired fences in Ireland, as pick-up trucks fill up and head off to the garbage dumps.