Northern Ireland: Deal crowns Ulster's year of progress

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The Independent Online
THE OUTLINE of a decommissioning agreement that em-erged yesterday was just the latest in a series of hugely important developments which mean that the past 12 months have been among the most eventful in Northern Ireland's history.

The past year has encompassed both remarkable political movement and appalling personal tragedies. While violence and political movement have gone hand in hand, optimists can find comfort in the fact that, latterly, violence has dropped, while politics looks to be taking on a new momentum.

The Good Friday Agreement was clearly a momentous development, winning as it did the support of most of the local parties and, for the first time, producing a document endorsed by Ulster unionists and Irish republicans. But continuing differences of opinion between the two sides on how the document should be interpreted, especially on the issue of arms decommissioning, have provided a discordant backdrop.

Joint referendums in Northern Ireland and in the Republic provided a huge popular mandate for the agreement. In the south, the pro-accord vote was more than 90 per cent while in the north it reached 71 per cent. That 71 per cent figure was arguably one of the most significant political events in Northern Ireland's history, in that no other political proposal had won such broad endorsement.

The vote signalled a profound change in the political landscape, offering as it did the first glimpse of an emerging civil society, with large sections of the two communities signalling a readiness to work together. While tribalism remained highly visible, the sense that a new start was being made has been palpable in many circles. While the referendums unquestionably constituted a mandate of great political and indeed moral force, the northern vote also showed up a serious weakness in the support base for the accord. Analysis of the 71 per cent total showed that at best only a narrow majority of Protestants voted Yes.

This, with the proliferation of Unionist groupings that emerged in the elections to the new Stormont assembly, showed Protestant opinion was both structurally fractured and deeply divided on the accord. The Rev Ian Paisley and his followers were, unsurprisingly, completely against it, but so too was another substantial section of Unionist opinion.

This situation was bound to make life difficult for David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, and he responded by toughening his position on decommissioning to the point where this week's further bout of negotiations became necessary.

The great surge of communal hope and international goodwill produced by the Good Friday Agreement and the referendums was followed in July by serious street disorder arising from the Drumcree marching confrontation. Intimidation and clashes, mostly between loyalists and the police, spread to many parts of Northern Ireland.

The episode ended with the deaths of three young boys, the Quinns, in a loyalist firebombing attack. Afterwards the widespread protests petered out, though sporadic trouble continued in Portadown throughout the year.

August brought an incident as horrifying as it was unexpected, when republican renegades bombed the Co Tyrone town of Omagh on a Saturday afternoon. The 29 deaths caused by the explosion shocked Northern Ireland and the world; they even shocked many paramilitary activists.

Suddenly the deaths of the Quinn brothers and those of the victims of Omagh assumed a dreadful symmetry: the first had shown the dangers of loyalist violence, while the second illustrated what republican terrorism could do.

The outcome of the intensive negotiations yesterday has not solved all the problems but once again real progress has been made.