Glimmer of Light in Ulster

April 03, 1991

At first blush, the achievement of Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, is not huge. Over 16 months of preliminary talks, he persuaded all but one of the significant political parties of the province to meet in a single room and talk about forming a provincial regime. No agenda is agreed upon and no predictions of success are ventured. But this will be the first such forum since 1975, and that is something.

What has happened is that the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, representing most of the Protestant majority, agreed to talks they previously shunned. The Social Democratic and Labor Party, representing Catholics, had already agreed. The Unionists had hoped to overturn the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, which gives Dublin a consultative role in Northern Ireland. In an ambiguous concession, no Anglo-Irish meeting under the 1985 accord will be held during this conference. At a second stage, the Protestant Ulster politicians are to sit down with Dublin officials to discuss relations between the two countries and two parts of Ireland. They never have before.

Sinn Fein, the political party of the IRA, is not invited unless it renounces violence, which it refuses to do. While the exclusion of a party that attracts a substantial minority of the Catholics may seem unwise, it was needed to get the Protestant politicians and Dublin officials into the room. It will add pressure on Sinn Fein to renounce violence and go political, which a faction advocates.

The context for communal relations in Northern Ireland is greatly improved. Any agreement on what the natives call "devolved government" would have to share power, recognize the majority, guarantee rights for the minority, legitimize both nationalist and loyalist traditions, and grant British sovereignty and Irish interest, the two to be reversed should the majority wish.

To expect Sunnis and Shiites, Israelis and Palestinians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis to work out coexistence is far-fetched if Protestant Ulstermen and Catholic Irish cannot. The spring conference is not anticipated to last long. The people of Northern Ireland want their politicians to get on with it, and perhaps this time they will.

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