The British and Irish prime ministers held talks in Belfast yesterday in a last-ditch bid to salvage the Northern Ireland peace talks. British leader Tony Blair said, "There are still a lot of very hard questions to resolve. I'm here full of ideas and determination. I'm going to give it the very best try I possibly can."
The effort came after the main pro-British party, the Ulster Unionists (UUP), rejected a draft peace plan two days before Thursday's midnight deadline. The killing of a Protestant man by a fringe Catholic group, the Irish National Liberation Army, further complicated the situation.
Arriving in Belfast Tuesday, Mr. Blair said, "I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders." History, indeed, is largely what the province's anguish is about.
As negotiators held intensive meetings behind the walls of Stormont Castle, there were disturbing parallels between the current crisis and events nearly 25 years ago. On that occasion, earlier British and Irish governments labored to broker a compromise between Northern Ireland's Unionist and nationalist communities. They failed - for reasons the Stormont peacemakers would have no difficulty recognizing.
In December 1973 at Sunningdale, amid the placid green hills of Berkshire, England, British and Irish ministers signed an agreement aimed at settling the province's political problems.
A year earlier, Britain, faced with erupting violence in Belfast, Londonderry, and other cities, imposed direct rule on Northern Ireland. It was intended as a stopgap measure, pending more permanent political arrangements.
British Prime Minister Edward Heath and his Irish counterpart, Liam Cosgrave, produced a constitutional blueprint for peace. Its contents - and this week's angry response by Unionists to a draft peace plan by the talks' chief mediator, former US Sen. George Mitchell - underline the truth that in the politics of Ireland, change is difficult to achieve.
Like the Mitchell blueprint, the Sunningdale Agreement proposed cross-border cooperation, a power-sharing executive body in Belfast, a joint North-South ministerial council, and an understanding that the two parts of Ireland would never reunite without the consent of the people of the North - where there is a pro-British majority.
In January 1974 the executive body, comprising Unionists and nationalists, began work in Belfast. But Unionists quickly objected when London and Dublin attempted to implement the North-South Council and make cross-border cooperation a reality.
In May, with the Rev. Ian Paisley, still leader of the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party, making the most of the political situation, Protestant workers staged a strike that paralyzed economic activity. Prime Minister Heath was left with no option but to reimpose direct rule, which has continued ever since.
Participants in the current peace process have been well aware of the hovering "hand of history" as they labored to bridge gaps of resentment, fear, and mistrust between the two communities. Seamus Mallon, chief negotiator for the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, quipped at one stage, "This talks process is Sunningdale for slow learners."
Just as 25 years ago the prospect of a dynamic Council of Ireland was too much for Unionists to swallow, UUP leader David Trimble finds the Mitchell formula for cross-border links unacceptable. Significantly, Mr. Trimble's followers are saying privately that he must adopt an intransigent stance lest the ever-radical Reverend Paisley denounce him as a traitor.
Yesterday the London Times, while urging Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern to battle hard to avert a collapse of the peace process, warned that historical precedents were not encouraging. The prospect of success, the Times said, was "vanishingly small." As he leaped into the political breach, the British leader might have been tempted to recall the old proverb, "Happy is the country that has no history."
The trouble with Northern Ireland, perhaps, is that it has too much of it.