So what''s the latest in the battle between the Catholics and
Protestants in Northern Ireland? Well, I thought I''d take a
moment to provide an update.
The "marching season" has recently concluded. For generations,
the Protestant Orangemen organization has staged marches
through northern, mostly Catholic, streets in celebration of a
victory way back in 1690; that being Protestant William of
Orange''s defeat of the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the
Boyne. The Orangemen see themselves as the respectable heirs
of a proud culture. I see the marches as nothing more than a way
to provoke violence. It would kind of be like a bunch of
Yankees dressed in Union garb parading through Richmond
every summer to celebrate the defeat of the South in the Civil
War. Simply put, it''s no longer appropriate.
And marching season really is counterproductive in light of the
1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and the problems that have
cropped up in terms of implementation.
The Orangemen are a secret order founded in the 18th century to
defend Protestant interests and oppose the Catholics. The past
few years their opposition has been focused against the GFA.
Five years ago, Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble was a
militant member of the Orangemen. Today, he leads the new
power-sharing government that has had many fits and starts since
The GFA of April 1998 represented a truly historic moment in
Northern Ireland. On paper, the ruling Protestants, who owe
their allegiance to Britain, agreed to share power with the long-
suffering Catholics. In a referendum on May 22, 1998, 78% of
the people in both the north and south of Ireland approved of the
The GFA had two essential pillars: guns and government. In
return for a role in the government of the North, the militant Irish
Republican Army (IRA) agreed to give up violence and pursue
their goals through exclusively peaceful means.
With the help of Republic of Ireland Prime Minister Bertie
Ahearn, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Clinton and
former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, the two sides began to set
up a government whereby the leader, David Trimble, sat
alongside representatives of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the
IRA. Sinn Fein became part of the new cabinet.
It took until December 1999 before the actual government took
shape in Belfast. The IRA had been observing a cease-fire but in
August 1998, an IRA splinter group, dubbed the Real IRA in the
press, had exploded a bomb in the northern town of Omagh,
killing 29. This actually had the effect of energizing both sides
and they became more determined than ever to see the new
But a big provision of the GFA was that the IRA was supposed
to disarm, basically by February 2000. So when February rolled
around and the IRA showed no signs of complying, David
Trimble pulled his Ulster Unionists out of the power-sharing
government, thereby invalidating it. The IRA had rejected the
concept of disarmament as "surrender."
With the government disbanded, certainly the situation looked
rather bleak and it seemed just a matter of time before the
paramilitaries on both sides renewed the cycle of violence.
However, in early May the IRA took the historic step of
initiating a process that will completely and verifiably put IRA
arms "beyond use." It is worth reading some parts of the IRA''s
statement as it sums up the conflict.
"The leadership of the IRA is committed to a just and lasting
peace. We have sustained that commitment despite the abuse of
the peace process by those who persist with the aim of defeating
the IRA and Irish republicans.
"Republicans believe that the British government claim to a part
of Ireland, its denial of national self determination to the people
of the island of Ireland, the partition of our country and the
maintenance of social and economic inequality in the Six
Counties (Northern Ireland) are the root cause of conflict."
Nonetheless, the IRA proceeded with disarmament.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams proclaimed, "This is a life-and-
death, blood-and-sinew, emotional, painful step for the IRA."
The IRA agreed to weapons inspections within weeks.
Protestant leader Trimble had to admit that this "confidence
building" step was truly significant. He had to go back to his
party and gain their acceptance of the IRA''s move in order to
resume the power-sharing arrangement.
On May 27 the vote within the Unionist party was only 459-403
in favor of returning to the GFA setup. But the vote, really a
referendum on Trimble''s leadership, was good enough. And
whereas the party had been steadfast in setting deadlines for
complete disarmament, this time they didn''t establish one.
Trimble, a co-winner of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize along with
Catholic leader John Hume, is a complex character. One
moment he is working out a compromise, the next he''ll say, "As
far as democracy is concerned, these folks (the Catholics) ain''t
house-trained yet...(they would have to be ) brought to heel."
But the insults go both ways and they have become common
currency in the public dialogue.
Trimble also faces severe opposition from within by the likes of
the bombastic preacher-politician Ian Paisley, who denounces
Trimble as a Judas.
And so it was that just a few weeks ago, international inspectors,
led by the former president of Finland, were allowed to examine
the secret arsenals of the IRA.
What does the IRA have? Supposedly about 40 rocket-propelled
grenade launchers, 650 AK-47 automatic rifles, hundreds of
handguns and 32 machine guns. In addition they have about two
tons of plastic explosive. Most of their weapons were smuggled
from Libya in the mid-1980s and are buried throughout rural
parts of the Republic of Ireland.
Now the IRA would like to see the various Protestant
paramilitaries disarm (or at least place their weapons "beyond
use" as the IRA has). That''s one sticking point.
Another future sticking point is the composition of a new police
force. The Protestants want to maintain the name Royal Ulster
Constabulary, currently 93% Protestant, in deference to those
officers who died in "the Troubles" (the name given to the
conflict of the past three decades). Catholics want a completely
new force. An independent commission has recommended the
name Police Service of Northern Ireland. Regardless, the
revamped force is supposed to be 30% Catholic by 2011.
And so it goes, as both sides take one step forward and one
backwards. Or is it two forward and one backwards? Hopefully,
Warren Hoge / New York Times
Susan McKay / Washington Post
T.R. Reid / Washington Post
Various wire service reports