An Easter peace that nobody can deny

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 April, 1998, 12:00am

To the people of Britain, it was the best Easter present imaginable. For decades, the Northern Ireland conflict has seemed one of the world's most insoluble, plunging into perpetual violence and causing bomb attacks throughout the United Kingdom.

Even at the times when peace seemed close, it has always previously proved illusionary. Those who took the risk of making concessions to try to end the conflict were ostracised by their communities, and sometimes even assassinated, while more extreme leaders stepped into their place.

That may yet happen on this occasion. The 69-page peace deal which has now been agreed involves painful compromises that even many mainstream Protestants and Catholic leaders will find difficult to accept, and to sell to their different constituencies. In the short term, there may even be an upsurge in violence as extremists on both sides - who have boycotted the peace process - do everything in their power to try to wreck the agreement.

For the republican Sinn Fein movement, the deal means, in effect, recognising the partition of Ireland against which it has fought for so long. Sinn Fein would also lose the weapon that gave them such a powerful say in the negotiating process, since the decommissioning of paramilitaries on both sides will mean that there is no longer any serious threat of the movement's military wing, the Irish Republican Army, resuming the armed conflict.

That explains the angry remarks from some republicans during the final hours before the peace deal was struck, and the large number of formerly key figures who have broken away to join more extreme Catholic groups over the past few months. Nonetheless, this agreement offers a big step in the right direction as far as the republicans are concerned.

The significant benefits include the release of most IRA prisoners, even those jailed for assassinations and other horrific bomb attacks, and an overhaul of the Protestant-dominated police force. The new all-Ireland bodies will be far stronger than was originally envisaged - although still not nearly as powerful as some wanted. They can be portrayed as the first stage in the long road towards a united nation.

With Catholics likely to outnumber Protestants by the middle of the next century, and Sinn Fein moving towards becoming the largest party among them, there are strong incentives for embracing this accord. The same cannot be said for the Protestant community, many of whom see it as a step in the wrong direction. Apart from a promise that the status of Northern Ireland can only be changed with the consent of its people, the one gain they derive from the deal is peace. Even that may prove illusionary, given the near certainty that more extreme republican groups will continue their bombing campaigns.

Had it not been for the courage of the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, this agreement would have been impossible. Mr Trimble has had to overcome mounting dissension within his ranks, and a walk-out by one key figure from the negotiations only hours before they were concluded. Nonetheless, there remains a reasonable prospect that Mr Trimble can overcome such opposition and sell this agreement to his party and the community as a whole.

Times have changed since the last Protestant leader who tried to negotiate with the Catholics was brought down by hard-liners a quarter of a century ago. The extremist Ian Paisley was barracked and attracted only a handful of supporters when he tried to repeat history by storming into the negotiating venue.

Peace has been hugely popular in Northern Ireland, even in the uneasy form in which it has existed since the IRA's first cease-fire four years ago. Largely free from the threat of everyday violence, the province's economy has flourished; people have felt safe to walk the streets; and the security presence has gradually been scaled down. That is why there is a real prospect of a huge majority in favour of the agreement when it is put to a referendum on May 22.

The deep longing for peace will be hard for the paramilitaries to defy now that the politicians have reached an accord. This is part of a wider pattern of peaceful resolution of seemingly intractable issues. From the successful implementation of the one country, two systems concept in Hong Kong to the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, it is becoming increasingly common to see problems bred by history being tackled in a sensible and pragmatic manner.

Sometimes this approach is less than fruitful, as is currently the case in the Middle East. But in Northern Ireland peaceful progress now stands a far greater chance of success than it did only a few days ago. Although many obstacles still lie ahead, the world is now much closer to having one less problem to solve.