Northern Ireland Takes a Leap On Painstaking Path to Peace

IN some parts of Ireland, David Ervine, former Protestant paramilitary leader, is a popular man. In the middle-class confines of the mirrored and carpeted Teachers' Club bar in the heart of Dublin, he meets a constant flow of well-wishers wanting to shake his hand.

For many in the Catholic-dominated Irish Republic, Mr. Ervine is the acceptable face of unionism, the political philosophy that for the past 70 years has defended the six majority-Protestant northern counties of Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.

In contrast to members of the establishment-oriented Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) - which threatened to bring down the British government in reaction to controversial peace proposals for Northern Ireland - Ervine asked his supporters to wait and see, and spoke of being ``positive'' about the future of the north.

The final version of the ``framework document'' on the future of Northern Ireland is to be unveiled Feb. 22 by British Prime Minister John Major and Irish Prime Minister John Bruton. The UUP preempted the unveiling by setting out its own proposal on Feb. 21, which would go more slowly toward building a new local government in the province.

But it is not certain that all unionists are all behind it, and an apparent division among them could thwart their all-out rejection of the framework document.

Ervine, who served time in prison for transporting a bomb, has a position similar to that of Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

The IRA's long terrorist campaign to drive the British out of Northern Ireland ended with an IRA cease-fire on Sept. 1 last year. Ervine was among those who reciprocated a few weeks later by announcing a cease-fire of Protestant paramilitary groups.

Although they come from different sides of the struggle for Northern Ireland, both men since last fall have argued for a political process to supersede the 25 years of violence that has cost more than 3,000 lives.

Now that the paramilitary groups have laid down their weapons, the compromises that must be reached through painstaking negotiation - for which the framework document is a stepping stone - are just as critical.

Unionists, representing the majority in Northern Ireland, have to be persuaded that they will not be forced into a united Ireland. Nationalists, representing Catholics who make up about 40 percent of the population in the province, must believe that their desire for links with the Republic of Ireland in the south will become a reality.

Unionists are most upset about the framework document's proposal for ``cross-border bodies,'' which will have authority from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to handle areas of mutual economic interest, especially those concerning the European Union - to which both the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom belong.

Unionist concern has been hard to allay, especially since some observers see the new cross-border bodies as a push into the Republic of Ireland.

Mitchell McLoughlin, northern chairman of the IRA's political ally, Sinn Fein, says it will look at the framework document ``in terms of two aims, the end of partition and the end of British administration.''

Enough is enough?

As far as nationalists are concerned, they have already made their fundamental compromise: That Ireland would only be united by the consent of those in the Protestant-dominated North, not by a desire of the island as a whole.

Further compromise may be difficult to draw from the province's Catholics, many of whom feel they were included in Northern Ireland against their will. The old local parliament, which was disbanded in 1972, was infamous for discriminatory policies against Catholics.

But six months of peace under the IRA and Protestant cease-fires may make everyone hungry for more. Ervine, the Protestant paramilitary leader, calls the days of paramilitary violence ``hell on earth'' and says he will not stand by and watch ``hearses roll into the graveyards again.''

And unlike many unionists, Ervine and his followers are ready to admit that nationalist Catholics have a point when they criticize how the unionist Protestants have treated them.

But his bottom line shows that final agreement with the nationalists still is a long way away. He says that speaking with nationalists is ``the same old story. You get, `you know you're not British really, you're Irish. Your future is in a united Ireland and you'll love it when you get there.' Well I ain't going.''

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