Thousands of lives were lost during the three decades that Northern Ireland’s Protestant majority and Catholic minority clashed.
Since 1998, though, guns have been exchanged for talks. Up for debate recently has been the future control of local policing and justice powers in Northern Ireland.
London is ready to hand over power, but the exact details are a source of deep division between Northern Ireland’s two largest parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the nationalist Sinn Fein.
Observers say that the worst-case scenario would be the crumbling of talks, and following that, a return to violence.
But peace is always possible when both sides of the political divide demonstrate that they are committed to finding a solution. Even after decades of violence, Northern Ireland is proving this. (Perhaps Israelis and Palestinians should take note. Israel’s ambassador to Ireland has.)
On Feb. 5, the two groups reached an understanding and endorsed a new peace deal at Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland. The document may not look like much; in fact, it’s little more than an agreement to agree. But it’s important to remember that this is a huge step forward and is the product of weeks of negotiation and hundreds of hours of work.
There are other signs of progress. The Hillsborough Agreement established a timetable for a turnover of power and determined that justice functions should be devolved to Northern Ireland on April 12.
Though the political parties failed to meet the first deadline to name a justice minister by Feb. 8, they are still talking and working to overcome their differences. It appears to be quite an exhausting process.
However, the public in Northern Ireland is not in the mood to give the province’s politicians a break just yet. Citizens are impatient for justice issues to be settled so that the Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast can concentrate on the economy and unemployment.
The tough business of resolving outstanding issues between unionists and nationalists has been delegated to two committees dealing with the two main snags in the agreement process: the performance of government and Orange parades.
The impasse in discussions is due in part to the fact that pro-British unionists remain suspicious that Sinn Fein, with its links to Irish Republican Army violence, has ulterior motives for wanting a say in policing. The DUP and its leader, Peter Robinson, have stressed that they will shelve devolution immediately if they detect bad faith among Irish Republicans.
Then there is the matter of Orange parades. The Protestant marches during the summer months are viewed by Catholics as triumphalist displays of unionist supremacy. Many Protestants contend that they are a harmless facet of their culture.
Whichever side is right, the job of mediation will fall on the Assembly in Belfast when justice is officially devolved.
Smaller parties, meanwhile, are more concerned about preventing another crisis down the line. They feel marginalized and believe their input into government is often ignored.
An “executive improvement” committee has been established to address these concerns, but if its recommendations are ignored, the DUP and Sinn Fein cannot rely on the support of their junior partners when justice legislation is put before the Assembly.
Although the discussions have proved long and difficult, it is clear that neither side wants to walk away from a deal and that in itself is more than hopeful.
Northern Ireland’s politicians on both sides of the political divide have proved that they are not afraid of late nights and hard work if the end result is stability. The rest of the world could learn a lot from that.
Owen Polley is a freelance writer.