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 That cheerless belief has now been replaced by the sense that the agreement amounts to the terms for an honourable peace.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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine