The jangled nerves in Northern Ireland last week had little to do with bombs exploding, sectarian assassinations or the kneecapping of informants. All was relatively quiet on the paramilitary front. The Irish Republican Army had agreed to a ceasefire, and, for the first time since the “troubles” began 25 years ago, there was a tantalizing prospect of peace in a land where families are intimate with heartbreak. But it was an eerie peace, the apprehensive pause before an uncertain future. In choosing to set aside their weapons— for now, at least—the IRA thrust the centuries-old conflict into a new era. But would this “new phase of the struggle,” in the words of Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, truly exchange the Carmelite rifle for the argument? Or was even greater violence ahead, sparked, perhaps, by Protestant gunmen who feared that Britain was betraying their loyalty in a backroom deal with the IRA?
Thus, the euphoria was muted. After the IRA issued its much-anticipated ceasefire statement, there was a bit of flag-waving on Belfast streets, and Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring declared it “a historic opportunity to take the gun out of Irish politics forever.” The British government was more cautious, at least in public. Prime Minister John Major claimed to want more specific assurances that the ceasefire marked a permanent end to violence. But having come this far in private negotiations through intermediaries with Sinn Fein, the British government was unlikely to halt the process now over a matter of semantics. Most participants expect peace discussions involving Sinn Fein to begin by year’s end.
The biggest obstacle may come from hardliners in the worried and bitter Protestant unionist community of Northern Ireland. Many of its lead-
ers sensed that their place in the United Kingdom might be bargained away. And some, like the bellicose Rev. Ian Paisley, predicted that the result of last week’s
move could be civil war. “I don’t see any renunciation of violence,” he thundered. “I hear the salute to murderers.” The loyalist community’s own murderers showed anger in their conventional way: the outlawed Ulster Freedom Fighters shot and killed a Catholic man in Belfast on the first day of the ceasefire, giving credence to fears that Protestant paramilitary groups would try to provoke the IRA into retaliation that would scuttle the peace process.
That was the darkest scenario, but it was clear that a ceasefire was, at best, a baby step on the road to a lasting peace. There is a seductive tendency to believe that, because reconciliation has come to sworn enemies in South Africa and the Middle East, a solution to Northern Ireland’s conflict could also be around the corner. But the province’s seemingly intractable political puzzle remains in place: a Protestant majority determined to remain a part of the United Kingdom; a Catholic minority, most of whom wish to unite with the Republic of Ireland to the south; paramilitary groups that punctuate those convictions with terror. Finding a formula for a lasting peace has barely been addressed. The British government insists that Northern Ireland’s status can change only with the consent of the Unionists, while Republicans reject any Protestant veto over ending partition.
Even getting the IRA this far has been difficult. Adams and the current Sinn Fein leaders owe their ascendancy in the movement to the failure of a 1975 IRA ceasefire, which lasted less than one month and discredited a generation of Republican leaders. The intervening years were marked by horrific terrorism and political sterility. But in the past two years, there has been some modification of hardline Republican attitudes. Sinn Fein leaders, say sources familiar with the movement, began to acknowledge two things: that the Ulster Protestants had some historic rights, and that the British could not be bombed out of the province. “I am 46 and have done 10 years on and off in jail,” one IRA member recently mused in a Dublin pub. “I have been shot at and had little or no family life. My son and daughter have now joined up, and I don’t want them to have the life I have had if there’s a better way. After 25 years, we have decided that the gun will not work.”
In choosing to cease fire, the IRA was responding to an offer made last December by the British and Irish governments that promised Sinn Fein—as well as loyalist paramilitary organiza-
tions—a place at the negotiating table in return for a permanent end to violence. But the IRA was slow to respond, going as far as rejecting the offer after a party conference just one month ago. But in the following days, Adams did manage to secure a pledge from Sir Hugh Annesley, chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, that a prolonged ceasefire would result in reduced police and army patrols in Catholic neighborhoods. Reports also suggest that Sinn Fein received private assurances from the British government that IRA prisoners may meet with early releases or generous parole terms if a ceasefire were agreed upon, although Major has denied that suggestion.
But such concessions were crucial if Adams is to avoid splitting the Republican movement over the ceasefire. There is a joke in Ireland that whenever the Irish get together to form a new organization, the first item on the agenda is to discuss a split. Irish history is littered with schisms in its self-styled sectarian armies, with compromise sending hardliners off to form new militant wings. But Adams had received endorsements for the ceasefire from several high-ranking IRA prisoners in the past few days. And he had support from internally venerated hardliners such as Joe Cahill, 74, a veteran of five decades of IRA campaigns. Cahill was granted a visa to visit the United States last week, where he explained the motives for a ceasefire to America’s often dewy-eyed IRA backers.
That the U.S. government was willing to grant a visa to an avowed terrorist like Cahill signalled the Clinton administration’s desire to broker a resolution to the conflict. Two weeks ago, a delegation of IrishAmerican political, business and labor leaders visited Ireland and hinted at a package of financial rewards and investment as a carrot for a ceasefire. But the same frantic lobbying that may now bring Sinn Fein to the peace table is exactly the kind of activity that unsettles Ulster unionists.
“What deals have been done?” asked the skeptical Combined Loyalist Military Command, the umbrella of Protestant paramilitary groups. That suspicion warned the people of Northern Ireland that, while they may look hopefully for peace, Ireland always seems to give them so much of the same.
25 YEARS OF TERROR
1969: Britain sends troops to Northern Ireland to protect Catholics from Protestant mobs after the Catholic civil-rights campaign sparks a violent backlash.
1972: After British soldiers kill 13 Catholic marchers in Londonderry on “Bloody Sunday,” Britain imposes direct rule on the province.
1974: Year-long effort at power sharing collapses under pressure of Protestant labor strikes.
1975: First IRA ceasefire ends after less than one month.
1981: Ten Republican hunger strikers, including MP Bobby Sands, die in prison. Sinn Fein support rises.
1984: IRA bombs British Tory conference at a Brighton hotel. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher narrowly escapes injury but four others are killed.
1985: Anglo-Irish Agreement gives Dublin a limited role in
Northern Ireland’s affairs.
1988: British agents kill three IRA members in Gibraltar, and a loyalist gunman kills three mourners at their funeral. When those victims are buried, a furious mob surrounds and murders two British army corporals.
1993: Shankill Road fish shop bombed, killing nine Protestants and the IRA bomber. But secret peace talks involving Republican leaders and British and Irish officials continue, resulting in the Downing Street Declaration, offering Sinn Fein a role in peace talks in return for an end to violence.
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