At the crossroads of Irish history

Not since the Troubles began have the prospects for peace looked so good. David McKittrick examines the significance of the Framework Document and the pitfalls that lie ahead

One thing above all else sets the Framework Document apart from all others in the litany of unsuccessful initiatives which stud the history of the troubles: it was launched in a time of peace.

All the others were unveiled against a background of bombs and bullets, the audible signs of conflict and division. Now the republican terrorists and loyalist paramilitants are still out there, but their guns are silent.

There is no guarantee that it will work, and it could be months before it is clear whether it has or has not. But if it does, the guns could be silenced forever, bringing the blessed prize of peace to Ireland.

The bulk of the population regards the absence of violence as something to be treasured and fervently desires it to continue. The hope of the two governments is that this will translate into a new readiness to take risks and contemplate compromises.

As with past initiatives, it will have to survive days of initial battering and suspicious scrutiny. Even before publication Unionist politicians had, in time-honoured Belfast fashion, got their retaliation in first and condemned it. The Government's hope is that the Protestant grassroots will take a more measured view and move away from the politics of instant denunciation.

The communal desire for peace is so palpable that there are grounds for thinking this is not a forlorn hope, and that Unionist voters may be more open-minded than their politicians. But this will be a tense time, with uncertainty co-existing with hope: the power of peace to change hearts and minds is about to be tested.

Complete rejection by the Protestant community would be a severe setback, for apart from the Rev Ian Paisley almost all the major political elements have until now, at least notionally, been part of the process. A flat Protestant "no" would not end the process and would not immediately threaten the ceasefire, but it would create a precarious imbalance.

It would also cast Unionist leaders in confrontation with yet another British government. Edward Carson, one of Unionism's historical heroes, once forecast that its last battle would be against the forces of the Crown. The present situation is unlikely to develop that far, but Unionists have a clear folk-memory of thwarting British governments in tests of will. Their politicians were yesterday beginning the task of doing so again.

The troubles are littered with British initiatives, many of them undertaken with reluctance. In 1969, British troops had to be sent in to reimpose order in the wake of large-scale communal strife. In 1972, after much hesitation, Edward Heath decided to make a fresh start and abolished the Unionist-dominated Stormont parliament.

Heath's purpose was to dismantle the one-party system under which Unionists ruled a resentful Catholic and nationalist minority. As an alternative, he and William Whitelaw, the first Northern Ireland Secretary, developed a system with, fascinatingly, the same three central elements as yesterday appeared in the Framework Document.

The document differs in detail from the Sunningdale agreement of 1973- 74, but it is clearly in direct line of descent from it. Sunningdale was hammered out by the two governments and three of the main Northern Ireland parties. It was fiercely attacked by Mr Paisley and the Unionist party on the one hand, and by the IRA on the other.

The first of its three main elements dealt with the terms of the union, in effect setting out that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom for the foreseeable future. This took the form of declarations that Northern Ireland would stay part of the UK while a majority of its people desired it. If a majority voted against this at some future stage, it would become part of a united Ireland.

The second element was that a new Belfast administration would include both Unionists and nationalists. One section of Unionism, led by the late Brian Faulkner, agreed to form a power-sharing executive together with the SDLP and the middle-of-the-road Alliance party.

Third, north-south relations were to be put on an institutionalised footing through a new "Irish dimension". A Council of Ireland with seven northern and seven southern ministers was to be established, with powers which were expected to grow as time passed. A new 60-strong cross-border consultative assembly was to be appended to the council.

The underlying theory was that Unionists would value the assurance on the union. Nationalists were not to have a united Ireland, but would have the substantial consolations of participation in government and formal recognition of their Irish identity through the Council.

It all fell apart in less than six months. Most of the Protestant population were not reassured on the union and deeply disliked the constitutional novelties of power-sharing and the Irish dimension. A widely-supported loyalist general strike run by loyalist politicians, paramilitary groups and trade unionists brought down the executive before the Council of Ireland could be established.

The sudden collapse of these carefully-crafted structures caused many to conclude glumly that Northern Ireland was a problem without a solution. Over the following decade government initiatives tended to be half-hearted affairs, fizzling out at the exploratory stage as ministers concluded there was little possibility of agreement.

The exception was the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement which, in the teeth of Unionist disapproval and resistance, established a strong Irish dimension. This had a direct lineage to Sunningdale: the guarantee on the union was repeated, together with an offer that agreement on a new power-sharing executive would reduce the Irish government's role. The offer was not taken up.

Yesterday the three familiar pillars - maintenance of the union, participatory government and north-south links - once again re-emerged into view. The promise of continuing union is still there; the word power-sharing has been avoided but the concept remains; and the Council of Ireland is now called a "north-south body".

The similarity of language is striking. The Sunningdale agreement spoke of "a Council of Ireland with executive and harmonising functions and a consultative role". The Framework Document says the north-south body will "discharge or oversee delegated executive, harmonising or consultative functions". Both envisage an entity which would grow in stature as time went on. Clearly, two decades of Unionist opposition have not changed the view of both London and Dublin that these remain the key elements of a settlement.

Nor have two decades of Republican violence altered these tenets. The recent focus on Unionist reactions to the document has diverted attention from the fact that most of the new hope in Belfast has flowed from last August's IRA ceasefire. Without that, the bombs would still be going off, and much of the population would have dismissed yesterday's launch as another doomed enterprise, not worth raising hopes or taking risks for. Now, for all the uncertainty and anxieties, chances of progress have been appreciably strengthened.

In 1973, the IRA rejected the Sunningdale agreement and pledged that the "armed struggle" would continue, as it did for a further two decades. Yesterday, faced with a Sunningdale-style package, Gerry Adams did not urge his people back to the barricades but instead promised to study it carefully.

The Framework Document is not at all what republicans ideally wanted to see. What they wanted to hear from John Major was a solemn declaration that Britain was on the way out of Ireland: but they knew that was never on the cards.

The republicans have come a long way from the days when they routinely dismissed anything short of withdrawal as tinkering with the problem. Adams has led his people from a futile pursuit of military victory to the sober reality that the way ahead lies in making a start on building relationships with those they previously fought.

In the republican community, it was Adams who took the initiative and, in a terribly slow way, gradually persuaded his people to lay the guns aside. He and others regularly complain that Unionism has produced no De Klerk to lead the Protestant community towards a new accommodation: certainly no such figure emerged yesterday.

Unionists face a crucial choice. They instinctively recoil from all-Ireland institutions, fearing that they inexorably lead towards Irish unity; and they traditionally doubt British assurances that this is not the case.

But it is also obvious to them that the peace process, with its widespread support, has a momentum which may be slowed but is unlikely to be halted. Their fear is that, if they opt out, they will be heading for futile isolation and allowing their own future to be mapped out without them.

The unpalatable conclusion of Unionists reading the document is almost bound to be that the union with Britain, as they have traditionally known it, is no longer on offer to them. John Major, a prime minister who calls himself a Unionist, has, after the most detailed consideration, brought forward a document with an unmistakeable all-Ireland orientation.

He has made it plain that they can stay in the UK so long as they wish; but while they do they should appreciate that life can be expected to take on a steadily greener hue. The signal has also been sent that while Britain will not cast them out, nor will it be beseeching them to stay.

If Unionism does opt for a new departure, and this time accepts what it rebuffed at the time of Sunningdale, the impetus will have to come from the grassroots and not from the top down. The Government's hope lies in the new ingredient of peace, and in the premise that the Protestant community has learnt more than have its political representatives from the last quarter-century of conflict.

Last August, republicanism made its choice, opted for a historic compromise and decided on an end to violence. It is now Unionism's turn to stand at the crossroads and face its moment of truth.

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