While they weren't looking, peace crept up on N. Ireland

From police reform to prisoner releases, there's more to the Good Friday Accord than just an assembly.

While today's headlines will surely focus on yesterday's Belfast meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern, little attention is being paid to the significant progress in Northern Ireland since the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

Two years after the Northern Ireland peace accord was conceived, public interest remains fixated on just how intractable the negotiating sides have been over establishing a regional assembly. Such heel-dragging over paramilitary disarmament eventually led to the suspension of a power-sharing government in February.

"The parts of the Good Friday Accord that are in place will make a difference in people's lives," says Dr. Richard Wilford, professor of Politics at Belfast's Queen's University. "But without the Northern Ireland Assembly there is still a serious democratic imbalance."

Nonetheless, much of the agreement has in fact been implemented. From prisoner releases to police reform, security de-escalation, and the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, the peace is more robust than many people think.

After cease-fires from the main paramilitary factions and years of protracted political negotiations, Protestants and Roman Catholics alike have been eager to implement practical changes in their communities.

Among these are the current efforts to transform the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Northern Ireland's police service, from an anti-insurgency unit into a civilian police force. During the "Troubles," the RUC was Europe's most beleaguered police force - dogged by allegations of human rights abuses while suffering over three hundred deaths at the hands of paramilitary groups. The force, over 90 percent Protestant, never won the trust of Catholics while even Protestant support was tenuous.

Now the name and badge of the force are due to change with a recruitment campaign underway to redress the religious imbalance.

"The vast bulk of the recommendations are designed to enhance the quality of service that we deliver," says Sir Ronnie Flanagan, Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who has generally welcomed the changes.

Probably the most controversial aspect of the agreement has been early release for political prisoners. That has been almost fully implemented with the final 85 of the 450 eligible inmates to be freed on July 28.

Over three hundred prisoners have already benefited from the scheme and are back in the community while the Maze Prison, the high-security compound which once held Northern Ireland's political prisoners, is due to close at the end of the year.

Other changes, which lie outside the scope of the Accord, are no less dramatic.

The once ubiquitous security presence has all but vanished with British army troop levels at their lowest since the Troubles began. Fifteen army battalions were stationed in Belfast in 1972. Today, the city's one remaining battalion is rarely seen outside its barracks.

And preparing for a peaceful future has meant giving a reckoning of the past.

In March, the Bloody Sunday Inquiry - investigating the deaths of thirteen civil rights protesters at the hands of British paratroopers in 1972 - convened. Last week searches resumed for the "Disappeared" - six IRA murder victims whose bodies were hidden over 20 years ago.

But those remarkable dividends from the agreement have largely been neutralized while the public waits for the decommissioning issue to be resolved and the Northern Ireland Assembly to convene.

"Community relations have improved tremendously and there is no will for a return to violence," says Reverend Jim Rea, who has served as a Methodist Minister in Northern Ireland for thirty years.

"The worrying thing is that there is a degree of apathy setting in."

Quintin Oliver, who chaired the "YES" Campaign to ratify the Good Friday Peace Accord, agrees.

"There is a sense that the time for high drama and heartfelt pleas is over. Now it is up to the local politicians to do their part, get down to serious negotiations and finish the job they started."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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