By William A. Hazleton
Be it the Middle East, Balkans, Kashmir, or Cyprus, former-President Clinton and British Prime Minister Blair have cited the Good Friday Agreement as a model for resolving conflict. Reaching an agreement in Northern Ireland took years of dedicated diplomacy by the Irish, British, and American governments, bold initiatives leading to paramilitary ceasefires, and hard bargaining by political leaders plus a willingness to compromise.
The end result was both predictable in terms of power-sharing institutions and communal guarantees and yet highly imaginative and ambitious in scope and complexity. The Agreement was not a settlement, but rather a means for eventually resolving the long-standing, and often bloody, conflict between predominantly Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists and republicans. The hope was that sweeping reforms and substantial self-government in a local assembly, linked to north-south cooperation with the Irish Republic, would transform politics in the North to allow peaceful coexistence and change.
Although their institutional lives have been short, if not traumatic, the Assembly and North/South Ministerial Council have worked, in some areas better than expected, in others not always as intended. Levels of violence have subsided, increased prosperity is apparent, policing and the criminal justice system are being overhauled, and relations between Dublin and London have strengthened.
But the price of preserving the peace process was "constructive ambiguity" in what the Agreement meant and what it required. This allowed incompatible objectives to be accommodated, with nationalists and republicans seeing the Agreement as a step toward a united Ireland and unionists as securing Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom. Similarly, troublesome issues, like IRA decommissioning, were left deliberately vague to keep the process moving ahead.
The Agreement also left the North's sectarian divisions in place, if not strengthened. This has fueled uncertainty and distrust, particularly among working-class Protestants and Catholics, which periodically ignites at any number of flash points. Not surprisingly, then, the Agreement's implementation has become yet another battleground for communal aspirations cloaked in insistent demands of what was promised and to whom.
After nearly five years, four suspensions, and repeated interventions, the British and Irish prime ministers have called for "acts of completion" to break the impasse. While "acts of completion" denote the Agreement's full implementation, attention remains narrowly focused on the vexing question of IRA weapons.
"Constructive ambiguity" that, in Blair's words, "left the IRA half in and half out of the process" has now brought it to a stop. But demands for "certainty" and "clarity" make the "risks for peace" much greater, especially for Sinn Fein and Ulster Unionists who have assured anxious constituents of no further concessions.
In early March, the two governments submitted a package of incentives and trade-offs to give the parties negotiating room. They include IRA decommissioning, British demilitarization, protecting the institutions from suspension, further policing reforms, amnesty for IRA fugitives, and sanctions for parties failing to fulfill their commitments. How far Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists will go, and if it will be enough, should become clearer next month when meetings resume.
Unfortunately, the lesson of Northern Ireland has two parts. The first is encouragement for those wishing to negotiate an end to ethnic violence; the second is peace agreements do not automatically bring reconciliation or real peace.
Despite the implied finality of "acts of completion," Northern Ireland's future is destined to remain uncertain if communal antagonism prevents nationalists and unionists from engaging one another without fear or recrimination. The Agreement's institutions, safeguards, and reforms were not intended as compensation or punishment, to be imposed on or rewarded to only one side; rather they were intended to make all sides more secure so political accommodation could take place.
Acts of completion, in whatever form, may extend the life of the Agreement, but only acts of reconciliation will inspire the trust necessary for peaceful coexistence.
William A. Hazleton is professor of political science at Miami University, and was a senior fellow at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queens University, Belfast, 1999-2000.
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