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The people choose a different future

THE RESULT of this referendum will be in every history book to be written on Ireland in the next century, the authors explaining that the people of the North finally found something on which they could agree.

Just after 3pm yesterday, the Good Friday agreement became the people's agreement, the first time in history that unionists and nationalists settled on a common agenda. It offers the chance to settle disagreements by argument instead of by force.

It is not perfect; it will not simply dissolve the ancient problems; it will face many hurdles and stiff challenges. But it has allowed all of the main paramilitary groups, and nearly all of the politicians, to subscribe to an agreement which is nobody's ideal but everyone's acceptable second choice.

Peace is difficult to define. This result doesn't mean we have seen the last dead body or heard the last bomb, but from now the people are entitled to expect that acts of violence will be an increasingly sporadic and declining phenomenon.

It doesn't mean the big paramilitary groupings disbanding and handing in their weaponry, for paramilitarism is a symptom of mistrust and that still abounds. But it does mean that the people of Ireland have spoken, and they have spoken of an end to violence.

This is an enormous advance, for not too long ago the widely held assumption was that Northern Ireland was fated to be locked forever in an endless war. That cheerless belief has now been replaced by the sense that the agreement amounts to the terms for an honourable peace.

The obstacles ahead are formidable. The parties have to learn to work together in a new assembly, co-operating in an executive which has been designed to house both David Trimble and Gerry Adams, two men who have yet to speak to each other. Ahead still lie the thorny questions such as arms de-commissioning, release of prisoners, reform of policing, the management of the marching season - all huge problems.

Yet a glance back over what has already happened makes them seem much less intractable. The British and Irish governments are pretty much at one on Northern Ireland. The IRA and the loyalist groups have maintained imperfect but worthwhile ceasefires; they still have their guns but the communal tolerance for their use has dropped dramatically.

Almost all of the parties have co-operated in hammering out this agreement and went on to campaign for its endorsement. They will now move on to the new assembly with almost everyone, the Paisley camp excepted, seeking to make the new structures work. There are already encouraging signs of personal and political bonding.

Practically every nationalist in both parts of Ireland voted for the agreement. The pattern was different among unionists, where a substantial section of Protestants were unconvinced about the new deal and voted against it.

The hard core of Paisleyite fundamentalists voted No but the majority of the Ulster Unionist party, the largest Protestant grouping, followed David Trimble's call to take a leap of faith and to support this radical departure from the old ways.

In doing so they endorsed the creation of a new unionism, a phenomenon as momentous in its way as Tony Blair's new Labour or the new nationalism brought into being by John Hume and Gerry Adams.

Northern Ireland will continue to be divided into two political cultures, unionism and nationalism, but now another template has been superimposed. From now on people will also be categorised into the Yes and the No camps.

The voters did not banish the past yesterday, but they did opt for a fresh start. They sent an instruction to their paramilitary groups to keep the guns silent, while they told the politicians that the time had come to work together to create stability, and to put an end to war. In doing so they wrote themselves into the history books.