Devil's in the details

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 April, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 April, 2001, 12:00am

The process of implementing the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland has been arduous and lengthy. Since Good Friday 1998, the 65-page document, which essentially is a blueprint for peace in the province, has hit one roadblock after another. But, three years on, there are at least some positive signs to note.

Most importantly, all the major signatories to the agreement are still, to greater and lesser degrees, advocates of the peace process. However acrimonious the debate has sometimes been over the three years, it has not - as yet - broken down. But, as our correspondent reports today, what might often appear to be trivial points of contention to the outside observer are, in fact, of profound importance to the people of Northern Ireland.

The debate over the display of a flower associated with supporters of a united Ireland seems inconsequential enough, perhaps. It is significant in itself that such a matter was debated - even if acrimoniously at times - and that, ultimately, the issue was decided by a democratic vote.

But, however optimistic an observer may try to be, there are also reasons for deep concern that the Good Friday agreement, while still in existence, has, in many important ways, stalled.

As a sensitive time of year arrives for both sides of the political divide - the resonance of the republican uprising in Easter 1916 remains strong; and the loyalists begin a series of parades tomorrow - the crucial hurdles to a lasting peace in Northern Ireland all remain. These are threefold: the reform of the Ulster constabulary, the decommissioning of weapons still in the possession of paramilitary groups, and the phased withdrawal of the British Army.

If real progress can be made on any of these issues in the foreseeable future, then there will be powerful cause to hope that the Good Friday agreement, and, more importantly, the impetus for peace in Northern Ireland can be preserved.

For years there has existed in the province a belief that outsiders cannot truly understand the sensitivities at work and therefore the often inflexible views they create - and at times the barbarities that are bred. This is the argument used to perpetuate hate and retaliatory violence in countless conflicts throughout history.

It is time for the moderates to speak with the loudest voice in Northern Ireland; and for all who insist on hindering the Good Friday peace deal to look again and see what many people not directly involved in the conflict have seen for years - that only bigots and gangsters stand in the way of a permanent end to violence.