Hope in N. Ireland

Gratitude for the peace agreement in Northern Ireland extends beyond the tense city streets and verdant countryside of that province. Few conflicts have seemed as intractable as that dividing Ulster's Protestants and Catholics. But through patience, and a refusal to accept conflict as the ultimate reality, a bridge has been built. Now to traverse it and move toward a future based on cooperation.

The way pointed in Northern Ireland should encourage peacemakers in other parts of the world, notably the Middle East. When peoples recognize the futility of hatred and revenge, and their leaders are committed to the goal of peace, the "impossible" becomes possible.

The importance of deep involvement by "outsiders" can't be overstated. The parties in Northern Ireland needed every ounce of reinforcement they could get. The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, played crucial roles in the charged few hours preceding last Thursday's midnight deadline for an agreement.

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President Clinton and his special emissary to Northern Ireland, former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, helped keep the process moving at numerous points of crisis. Mr. Clinton, the first American president to take a direct interest in bringing peace to Ulster, called both Protestant Unionist and Catholic Republican leaders in the wee hours to assure them on matters of detail, such as the disarming of paramilitary forces.

Mr. Mitchell's calm perseverance over nearly two years, nurturing talks in the face of hair-trigger tempers, threats of violence, and actual violence, was nothing short of heroic.

What the negotiators came up with is a classic political compromise. The Unionists maintain their tie to Britain. They will have a majority in a newly formed Northern Ireland assembly. Catholics will have substantial representation in that assembly, and a north-south ministerial council will merge decisionmaking on matters like environmental protection and tourism. This council speaks to Republican hopes for closer ties to Dublin, if not actual reintegration into Ireland.

Questions and uncertainties are, of course, plentiful. Voters throughout Ireland, north and south, will participate in a referendum on the peace agreement next month. Extremists in the north, distrusting any compromise, will clamor for the pact's defeat.

The loudest clamor, however, will come from 300 years of fear and injustice. Can the people of Northern Ireland, as Mr. Ahern put it, finally "exorcise the demons of history"?

We answer yes. A great American leader, Lincoln, once reminded us that the "better angels of our nature" can transform history. The good work started in Northern Ireland indicates those angels are being heard, and their power felt.

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