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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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."

The persistent fears are reflected in a strange irony: Even as the peace talks reached their climax, a new "peace wall" was under construction in North Belfast to protect residents on either side from attack by the other.

Republicans - nationalists who backed the IRA's campaign of violence - and loyalists - Unionists who supported their own paramilitaries - can point to the pact's provision that prisoners from organizations observing a cease-fire will be released within two years. Some Unionists, who fear former IRA killers being set loose, have refused to accept this provision, and it seems likely to remain a flashpoint of disagreement.

"We are in for a rough ride for the next several months," predicts May Blood, a community leader in the Protestant district of the Shankill Road.

Just as keeping up the momentum in the final stage of the negotiations made success possible, the same approach will be needed for the planned political and constitutional measures over the next few months.

"For a long time, politics in Northern Ireland have been played as a zero sum game - I win, you lose; I lose, you win. This is an agreement where either everybody wins or it completely falls to bits," said Prime Minister Blair.

Mr. Blair will join forces with his Conservative predecessor John Major to campaign for broad support of the peace accord. President Clinton, who will be in Birmingham, England, for the Group of Seven summit of industrialized nations in mid-May, is also expected to campaign for the accord. Opinion polls indicate that up to 75 percent of the population of Northern Ireland and Ireland support the accord.

If the settlement works, and "if people see it's the best way forward, support for the fringe paramilitaries will fizzle," Ms. Blood hopes. "They can only survive with the support of the community, and on the fear they instill in the community on the other side. If they can't say they are defending people against possible attacks over the wall, what are they there for?"

Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews expressed the same confidence as he left the peace talks on Friday. "The people who wish to continue to kill and maim will be sidelined by the historical relevance of this agreement," he said.

If he is right, the economic implications for a region starved of business and jobs will be extensive. "One difference would be investment," says Blood. "If we have a deal it could mean a lot more jobs, and it would be easier for young men to go across the peace lines to new factories if they weren't afraid of being shot."

Economic concerns

Jobs, and similarly down-to-earth issues, are the primary concerns of most people in the poorer areas of Belfast that have long been a breeding ground for violence. The constitutional niceties of the new assembly, cross-border bodies and so on, are of lesser importance.

But making the constitutional and political changes that are part of the deal into reality will be tough, as leaders who refused even to talk directly with their opponents in the negotiations face the prospect of sitting at the same Cabinet table with them, and of reforming the judiciary, the civil service, and the police force to give Catholics more representation.

"If there were nervous people about reaching an agreement, there will be even more nervous people afterward," said David Irvine, a negotiator with the Protestant Union Party, linked to one of the paramilitary groups. "Because inclusion actually means that, and we are going to have to make it work."

"Unionists and nationalists have only learned to crawl today," added his colleague Billy Hutchinson. "We have to learn to walk and then to run."

* Special correspondent Alexander MacLeod contributed to this report from London.

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