Northern Ireland politics featured at peace forum

by David Anderson

Two Northern Ireland political figures blamed the Irish Republican Army for recent setbacks in the peace process intended to give the province partial autonomy from the British government.
But Twin Cities protesters accused Northern Ireland’s First Minister David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party of unfairly blaming the IRA when loyalist paramilitary groups have been just as uncooperative in maintaining the partnership.
At a crucial time in Northern Ireland’s history, Trimble and Social Democratic Labour Party representative Denis Haughey spoke Friday morning in a world affairs forum at the IDS Center in downtown Minneapolis.
Trimble, the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize co-laureate, and Haughey addressed political and economic issues to a crowd of approximately 300 people. Trimble is Protestant, while Haughey is Catholic. Together they represent both sides of the religiously charged Ulster conflict.
Trimble and Haughey were in Minnesota to participate in the annual Nobel Peace Prize forum at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.
Haughey spoke on behalf of John Hume, the other winner of the peace prize. Hume underwent multiple surgeries within the last few months and was unable to attend the forum.
The event attracted a number of Trimble opponents. Members of Minnesotans for a United Ireland gathered at the building’s entrance to protest the first minister’s presence.
The speakers’ arrival remained uncertain until Thursday because of the coinciding turmoil that has been shaking Northern Ireland. The events have threatened Trimble’s status as head of the province’s governing body.
“My visit here was hanging on the balance until the last minute,” Trimble said.
The peace process in Ulster was once again put in jeopardy last week, nearly two years after the Good Friday accord that promised the province a semi-autonomous, bi-confessional assembly.
The British government argues the Irish Republican Army has made no effort toward respecting the disarmament clause of the accord. On Feb. 11, London indefinitely suspended the two-month-old home rule.
The 1998 agreement between pro-Irish republicans and pro-British loyalists stipulated that paramilitary groups, such as the IRA and Ulster Freedom Fighters, must engage in the so-called “decommissioning” of their arsenal. May 22 is the ultimatum date set up by the accord for complete disarmament in Ulster.
“(We realized that) instead of locking the extremes out, that we really ought to include them in,” Haughey said.
The speakers said the IRA, whom Haughey called the “absolute scourge” of the Catholic community, is reluctant to align with mainstream parties in cutting down weapon arsenals.
“Come the end of January, it was absolutely clear that (Sinn Fein leaders Gerry) Adams and (Martin) McGuinness had done nothing,” Trimble said. Sinn Fein is the political branch of the IRA.
Trimble said he doesn’t think there is any serious issue of paramilitary groups reverting to violence. The next day, two men were found dead in what is believed to be the first political killing in Ulster since December.
Local protesters didn’t think Trimble was deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize.
“It’s kind of hypocritical of (Trimble) to be participating in this (the peace prize forum) when he’s been a major roadblock in the peace process,” said Mike Whalen of MUI.
One point on which the two men disagreed was the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
“It is a problem for us that this suspension has occurred and that there is this hiatus,” said Trimble. “But I think that it is only a hiatus.”
Haughey said the Social Democratic Labour Party was against restoring centralized British rule.
The forum was sponsored by the Minnesota International Center. The international center is a nonprofit organization which has a long history of ties to the University through interaction with international students.