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 That cheerless belief has now been replaced by the sense that the agreement amounts to the terms for an honourable peace.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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace