Irish Protestants' Crucial Leap of Faith

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It was a reluctant but crucial "yes" the majority Protestant-Unionist community gave to the peace agreement in Northern Ireland last Friday.

"On balance, I think in my conscience I must vote 'yes.' I hope I do not live to regret it. It is a leap of faith," said Anne Slaine, a Protestant whose son, Paul, a police officer, lost both legs in an Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing.

Catholics, a minority in Northern Ireland, largely saw a "yes" vote on the peace agreement as a way of achieving political change, and strongly favored it. But it was an agonizing decision for Protestants. In the end, around 55 percent of them did vote "yes."

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It's only the first of many daunting challenges ahead for the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland as it seeks to create a new future for itself in a context where new relationships are going to have to be forged with people who have been bitter enemies.

A man from the Protestant heartland of Belfast, Shankill Road, expressed the tentative, downbeat kind of hopefulness felt in the majority community: "There are lots of ifs and buts, but anyway it's a bit of a start."

The sticking point for many is the proposed quicker release of terrorist prisoners.

Mrs. Slaine summed it up this way: "I look upon 'yes' as somehow letting Paul down, and those people who have suffered at the hands of terrorists who will now be able to walk the streets."

She is unconvinced that British Prime Minister Tony Blair can deliver on his guarantee that Sinn Fein will be excluded from power-sharing if the IRA fails to hand in its weapons. (Sinn Fein is the political arm of the IRA, which has used violence to try to unify Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic.)

The "decommissioning" (turning over to authorities) of weapons held by terrorists was also a significant issue during the referendum campaign and will be a major focus of attention in the campaign leading to a vote June 25 to elect members of a new Northern Ireland Assembly.

Many Protestants were happy with the status quo and feared what change would bring. They wanted to be left alone to be British, just as anyone else in the United Kingdom. They found it difficult to accept that the status quo was not an option. They were bitter when they realized that a British government was not going to let them be as they wanted to be.

And then there were the total rejectionists, those who believe that no Irish Catholic can be trusted; those who believe that the peace agreement is an "open appeasement of terrorists," in the words of one pro-Union group; those whose view was represented by the man who said, "As far as I am concerned, the path is laid down to a united Ireland," Protestants' greatest fear; those who believe that the peace process was fundamentally flawed and twisted and the peace agreement was its inevitable fruit; those whose view was that the agreement corrupted democracy and the rule of law.

In spite of them, another group of unionists were a significant factor in getting the agreement accepted. They were the two paramilitary-related parties - the Ulster Democratic Party and the Progressive Unionist Party. Many of their leaders were former prisoners who had learned in prison that violence was not the answer. They have played a significant and constructive role in Northern Ireland politics since the loyalist paramilitary cease-fire in the autumn of 1994. For them, it was a "good enough" agreement.

Some were motivated by weariness with the conflict. Others by the prospect of a new partnership between Protestant and Catholic, unionist and nationalist, and between the people of the island, north and south.

One of the most memorable images of the referendum campaign came three days before the vote at a pop concert in Belfast's Waterfront Hall. Leaders of unionism and nationalism came together to the cheers of the young generation. Perhaps that could be the future.

For many people the argument was about what sort of future they wanted for their children and grandchildren.

In the words of Mrs. Slaine:

"I took part in a radio show last week and spoke of my fears of betraying my son. A schoolboy was the last to speak. He told me to think about whether I would be betraying my grandchildren by voting 'no,' and that had an important effect on me."

As another schoolboy who was celebrating his 18th birthday and voting for the first time said, "This is the first chance for years to move things forward."

The action now moves to the selection of candidates and campaigning for the elections to the assembly.

The leader of the main Unionist Party, David Trimble, took an enormous risk when he accepted the agreement, known as the Good Friday Agreement because it was concluded on April 10, just before Easter. He scored a significant victory in the referendum; he has not, however, conclusively defeated his unionist opponents. A lot is still at stake. The unionist-rejectionists are hoping to wreck the assembly. Many difficult issues must be faced: the turning in of terrorist weapons, the setting up of a power-sharing executive in which Sinn Fein is likely to be entitled to have members; the reform of the police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Violence may continue for some time from republican paramilitaries who oppose the agreement and from some loyalist sources.

The Orange Order marching season will soon get under way, which will inevitably raise tensions as Protestant groups march through Catholic neighborhoods.

But "it is a bit of a start," "a leap of faith."

* David Stevens, a Presbyterian layman, is general secretary of the Irish Council of Churches in Belfast, a group of 10 mainly Protestant churches. The council runs a peace education program in cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church.

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