N. Ireland's Peace Map: The Long Road Ahead
After Friday's historic pact, a spirit of compromise will be needed to implement all the difficult provisions.
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND
The historic agreement that Northern Ireland's Protestant and Catholic political leaders reached here on Friday has broken the grip of sectarian politics that has throttled hope for the province's future over the past 30 years and sparked violence that has taken more than 3,200 lives.Skip to next paragraph
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But as all of the players stressed at the end of marathon negotiations, the accord will work only if the spirit of compromise can be kept alight.
"This is, and will remain, only an opportunity," warned Lord Alderdice, leader of the mixed-religion Alliance Party. "It is a foundation. We have to build peace brick by brick ... and it could all go awry if we sit back on our oars."
Neither side has given up its ultimate aspirations. David Trimble, leader of the main pro-British Ulster Unionist Party, insisted that "the union (with Britain) is stronger now than it was when these talks started."
Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), insisted that "this is a phase" in a continuing struggle for a united Ireland.
But the 67-page agreement on Northern Ireland's political future allows both sides to keep hoping that their irreconcilable aspirations will be fulfilled, while working together to make the province a more normal place to live and work.
What the pact does
At the agreement's heart are interlaced compromises aimed at balancing the claims of those who want to maintain the province's union with Britain (Unionists) and those who want to unite with Ireland (nationalists).
The chairman of the talks, former United States Sen. George Mitchell commented: "Everybody gets something, but nobody gets everything."
For Unionists, the agreement ensures that Northern Ireland will stay part of the United Kingdom until the majority of its people vote otherwise.
For nationalists, the deal will create new links with Ireland intended to reinforce their Irish identity. In a 108-seat assembly to be elected, the rights of the Catholic minority will be safeguarded through proportional representation. Catholics will be assured a quota of ministerial posts.
In other measures from the agreement:
* A cross-border body will harmonize policy in the two parts of Ireland.
* The Dublin government will amend the Irish Republic's Constitution, dropping its claim to Northern Ireland.
* Britain will amend the Government of Ireland Act, which asserts the supreme authority of the London government in Northern Ireland.
* British Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons will begin in June.
The first challenge before politicians will be to win approval of their deal from their parties and then from the general public in referendums to be held on both sides of the border May 22. This will be a hard sell in a society unaccustomed to compromise.
Now that Ulster Unionist executives have signaled approval for the accord, all that remains is for Sinn Fein to do so as well, in meetings due within the next two weeks. A "yes" vote would seem the most likely outcome, analysts say, because the combined weight of the Irish and British governments, almost all of Northern Ireland's major parties, and President Clinton - said to be planning a visit here next month - would seem unbeatable.
The referendum campaign, however, and a subsequent campaign for June elections to the new Northern Ireland assembly, are likely to unfold against a continuing background of violence.
Splinter groups that have broken away from the IRA and from the main Protestant armed forces remain opposed to the peace process. They are expected to do all they can to disrupt it.
"Change makes people fearful and that leads to violence," says Brian Lennon, a Catholic priest active in efforts to bring his community closer to Protestant neighbors in Belfast. "It will be destructive, but I don't think it will destabilize the process."