Ireland’s struggle to extricate itself from the British Empire contributed early and disproportionately to the political vocabulary of the twentieth century: colonial domination and guerrilla resistance, the aspirations of ethnic nationalism and the baleful legacy of partition. So it is fitting–and profoundly relevant beyond Ireland’s coastal waters–that the century’s last weeks brought a careful but innovative step toward multi-ethnic democracy in Northern Ireland. The new government at Belfast’s Stormont Castle, ending twenty-seven years of direct rule from London and seated only thanks to former Senator George Mitchell’s assiduous mediation, might seem an unworkable tangle. The new education minister, for instance, is Sinn Fein negotiator and former Irish Republican Army combatant Martin McGuinness; he is to be “advised and assisted” by two unionist assembly members, including Sammy Wilson of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, which is sworn to wreck the whole Stormont enterprise. But the promise of the Good Friday accords is to turn such sectarian firebrands into conventional pols, dependent on one another to deliver schools and elderly services and street signs.
Far more worrisome is the very compromise that brought the Stormont government to office: Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble’s pledge to resign and thus kill the power-sharing arrangement if the IRA doesn’t begin handing in arms by February. The IRA had already pledged to cooperate with the internationally supervised disarmament commission. Trimble’s threat, well beyond the requirements of the Good Friday process and intended to calm his party’s rejectionist faction, sets the stage for a new crisis by giving unionist hard-liners another chance to pull the plug. IRA cooperation will continue only as long as Gerry Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders can convince reluctant republicans that arms decommissioning is voluntary.
Most US reporting on the new government has misrepresented the unionists’ decommissioning demand. Decommissioning has never been a guarantee of long-term peace, because everyone agrees that the IRA could rapidly replace its arsenal. The motives of the decommissioning demand are, depending upon the unionist faction speaking, to humiliate republicans, or to wreck the Good Friday Agreement by delaying its implementation so long that it falls of its own weight or, worse, to provoke a resumption of IRA violence.
Trimble is gambling on a momentum of peace more powerful than the symbolic rhetoric of decommissioning. The power and perks of executive office may prove to be a moderating force for parties that have spent three decades on a soapbox without budget, staff or legal authority. Northern business leaders hope desperately that several months of stable government will bring economically dependent Ulster a share of the Republic’s roaring commerce, while labor unions see ground-up economic reconstruction as an opportunity to build social equity into the deal. The Good Friday Agreement doesn’t mean that fundamental social issues have been addressed but that there will be a government for activists to pressure instead of an unaccountable national security apparatus and paramilitary leadership.
If the Stormont government survives, it will be in part because the Good Friday process now forces remarkable change not just upon the North but upon the whole island of Ireland. Cross-border institutions will establish all-island policies for health, the environment, human rights and the intertwined economies. The day the Stormont assembly named its ministers, the Republic abandoned its historic claim of sovereignty over the North and incorporated new constitutional language acknowledging Ulster’s Protestant traditions as part of a broad Irish identity, ratifying the principle of democratic consent to any change in the North’s political status.
How to build social equity and regulate commerce across national boundaries and how to accommodate contending cultures within those boundaries are among the central questions of the global era. Northern Ireland, so long an exhibit of the worst legacies of colonialism, may now be poised to offer some of the answers, but only if the Ulster Assembly is not turned into an ethnic squabbling-pot by rejectionist hard-liners.