Irish Accord: Fruit of 'Parental' Changes

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With little more than 48 hours to go before the deadline, things did not look good for the Northern Ireland peace process last Tuesday. The leadership of the largest, most pivotal Protestant grouping, the Ulster Unionist Party, pronounced the draft agreement prepared by talks chairman former US Sen. George Mitchell "unacceptable."

Only the presence in Belfast of British Prime Minister Tony Blair could save the peace talks. Within the hour, Downing Street duly announced Blair's immediate departure. And notwithstanding the sudden death of his mother, Mr. Blair's Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern also made haste to Northern Ireland in a last-ditch attempt to clinch a settlement.

The symbolism of two heads of government ostentatiously taking personal charge of cajoling, encouraging and occasionally forcing the pace in the peace talks could hardly have been more striking.

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When serious violence first erupted in the late 1960s, most British and not a few Irish politicians had no understanding of the intricate patterns of sectarian politics. Northern Ireland was for that generation, an incomprehensible struggle between Catholics and Protestants - religious labels which obscured as much as they explained.

Over the years, Britain and Ireland sponsored a succession of political initiatives but to their horror, found themselves sinking in the morass. Every attempt to get Northern Irish politicians to resolve their differences fell at an early hurdle.

By the 1980s, it was apparent that the arrangements forged between Britain and Ireland in the 1920s had left an open wound in British-Irish relations that could not be healed by their warring children alone, caught up as they were in a dirty conflict of tit-for-tat murder. Talk of reconciliation seemed at best premature and at worst sinister.

As every competent family therapist knows, the behavior of children in dysfunctional families is usually traceable to the dysfunctional relations of the parents.

Historically, the "parents" to whom Ulster Protestants and Catholics look for security, comfort, and identity, are the larger British and Irish political communities. When the parents split in the 1920s amidst bitterness and conflict, they left unresolved the difficulties of their most immediately concerned children within Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland was the remnant of a bitter struggle which had once consumed the energies of all of Ireland and Britain.

After 1920, Britain remained technically in charge, and the focus of enormous Catholic resentment. But once the formal arrangements were secure, the British political establishment took every opportunity to distance itself from the quagmire of Irish politics. By the time trouble took hold in the 1970s, many Protestants were convinced that its "parent" Britain was abandoning them and departing the island of Ireland for good. Meanwhile, Ireland, having abandoned its own child - Northern Irish Catholics - in 1920, then frightened the Protestants by proclaiming a constitutional authority in Northern Ireland and never exercising it.

The result in Northern Ireland was two troubled offspring, both consumed with anxiety that the enemy-parent intended to consume and destroy them, while the beloved object of their desires had abandoned them or sought to do so.

The hidden secret of the latest Northern Irish peace process has been the emergence of a new and different relationship between the governments of Britain and the Republic of Ireland. By 1985, it was clear to many in both countries that neither was providing the security, identity, and comfort to Northern Ireland that their formal declarations promised.

The total abandonment of Northern Ireland by either state, while superficially attractive to both Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants, was ultimately unpromising for either. The only hope lay in new political cooperation which could gradually reassure both sides in Northern Ireland that their most paralyzing fears were groundless. When the two governments signed a historic agreement in 1993, every democratic political party in Britain and the Republic of Ireland was suddenly singing off the same hymn sheet.

What to do about the children, unable to trust each other? Confronted as they are by transformed parents, the children can easily feel that every attack on the enemy becomes an attack on their protector.

But more promising, there was evidence in the negotiations, among both Protestant and Catholic representatives, of a loss of some of the fear of abandonment.

As Tuesday of Holy Week became Wednesday, and Thursday, the personal presence of two prime ministers in Belfast became more crucial. The intensity of the effort, cliffhanging tension, and even last-minute hitches only emphasized their centrality. For both Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and Unionist, any desire to reject the deal was trumped by a desire to avoid the rejection of their own wider political community.

Then, as the deadline of Thursday was extended into Good Friday, the immovable object of Northern Ireland's sectarian antagonism yielded almost miraculously to the unstoppable force of a renewed British-Irish relationship.

Within minutes of the agreement being announced, both prime ministers left Belfast.

With them left the physical reminder of the political relationship that had delivered the new agreement, and into the limelight moved those who were full of the old doubts and fears.

It may yet take another 11th-hour rescue to ensure that the Northern Irish people directly experience the changed relationship of their political "parents" and deliver victory in the May 22 referendum on the agreement.

* Duncan Morrow is professor of politics at the University of Ulster.

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