These are trying times for the people of Northern Ireland. They stand on the brink of a descent back into the despair and fear of the past 30 years, after a brief and hopeful respite. Leaders and laymen alike must reaffirm their commitment to finding a peaceful settlement.
The murder of paramilitary leader Billy Wright inside the Maze prison after Christmas and the cycle of retaliation it spurred came at a critical time in the peace process. The multiparty peace talks were in recess for the holidays. The parties had left the table in frustration. Despite a condensed and revamped format, they were unable to agree on an agenda for substantive negotiation. They were forced to face their constituencies four months into the talks without tangible rewards. Each of the parties was more vulnerable to internal criticism than before.
David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and one of the cornerstones in any eventual peace settlement, has been weakened, although less by failure to achieve agreement than by the twisting course of the talks themselves. He now faces the combined opposition of the two unionist parties outside the talks, the Democratic Unionist Party and the minuscule United Kingdom Unionist Party, and increasingly outspoken critics from within his party's leadership.
The talks resumed Jan. 12. Secretary of State Mo Mowlam's risky but successful visit with loyalist prisoners in the Maze a week earlier ensured that the representatives of loyalist paramilitaries were present. Although the loyalists represent only a small minority of the electorate (combined, not more than 5 percent), they are extremely important to the process; their participation puts pressure on all parties to make the talks format work. Without them, the pro-union contingent at the talks lacks "sufficient consensus" to approve a settlement on behalf of the unionist community. Their withdrawal, given the weakness of the other parties, could act as a catalyst for the quick collapse of the talks process.
Undeniably, the talks are the best bet for producing a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. Few other options hold the same potential for success that a negotiated settlement does, no matter how difficult to achieve. A settlement dictated by the British and Irish governments, even one that's sensitive to the expressed interests of the multiple communities, may appeal to no one. Without a home-grown constituency in support, it couldn't possibly hold the allegiance of the people. Such a settlement would have to pass referendums (north and south of the border), with slight prospect of generating the necessary consensus. And what options remain if the referendums fail?
It's time for the people of Northern Ireland who do not want to live in violence and fear to make that point again to their political leaders. Church leaders, community groups, businesspeople, and ordinary citizens should reiterate the message that the status quo is unacceptable. They must work now just as hard as the men of war do at their goals. They can't let a small group of unelected men of arms take the impetus away.
The British and Irish governments must also act to build confidence in the process. Their failure in this regard ties the hands of the party leaders. The two governments bear the burden of convincing the participants of their good faith and imbuing the talks with purpose. It is widely accepted that this is the most propitious time for a peaceful settlement in decades. The structures exist in the form of the three stranded negotiations for resolving this conflict. We all must keep our eyes on the prize.
* Kimberly Cowell is a research assistant at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.