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The dawn of a hopeful era in N. Ireland

Published April 1, 2007


The power-sharing deal the Protestant leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, reached last week with Gerry Adams, of Catholic Sinn Fein, does not itself mark the end of decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland. The two major rivals embraced the deal in part to retain their parties' standing as the dominant local forces. But the agreement is historic, for it commits both sides to resolve their differences through the political process. The economic incentives could improve life in the province, open up opportunities for the minority Catholics and lay a foundation to integrate communities, jobs and the political system.

The two men agreed to restore the local assembly established under the 1998 Good Friday peace accord to run Northern Ireland's internal affairs. That body, suspended in 2002 over allegations the Irish Republican Army engaged in spying, is a framework for the two sides to find common ground by administering the province's day-to-day business. The local government will return May 8, soon enough for Britain and Ireland to withdraw the threat of dissolving the suspended assembly altogether. As longtime leaders of their sectarian camps, Paisley and Adams are in position to deal for self-rule. They also have common interests in pursuing a united front on education, health care, housing and other provincial concerns. Britain even sweetened the pot by adding almost $2-billion to a $70-billion aid package over four years, much of which will go for transportation projects and improving cross-border trade.

This certainly is a start. Paisley and Adams seem genuinely interested in moving beyond the violence that has killed 3,600 people the last three decades. But the peace process has lost valuable time, and world attention that brought the Good Friday accords has moved to Iraq, Iran and elsewhere. Northern Ireland's Protestants and Catholics also will not erase discrimination overnight. The power-sharing government may find consensus on bread-and-butter issues, but undoing a culture of hate and distrust is altogether different. It must operate amid competing interests, as Unionists seek to maintain ties to Britain and nationalists drive for a united Ireland. The United States, which helped enormously to bring Northern Ireland to this point, should continue doing what it can to keep the momentum for peace on track.

[Last modified April 1, 2007, 01:15:38]

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