WHILE the Stormont negotiators caught up on their sleep last weekend, the people of Northern Ireland woke up to the realisation that the responsibility for turning the province into a land of peace had been placed in their hands. Until last Friday it had been the politicians’ job to broker an end to the years of conflict: the people could watch from outside the gates of Stormont Castle — hopeful, perhaps, but more sceptical than hopeful. But on Good Friday the politicians surprised us all, producing a deal which was more than a set of clever words, a deal in which all the parties acknowledged the need to make concessions. The traditionalist cry of the Ulsterman, “no surrender”, is to be modified; the nationalists’ campaign for a united Ireland is to be postponed.
The process of ratification by each of the political parties is, of course, crucial; but the most urgent, and most difficult, task remains for the ordinary people of the province: without the benefit of the hot house atmosphere of the overnight sessions, they must enter into the thinking of the negotiators. Like those who emerged from the talks on Friday, all will have to surrender something of their personal vision of Northern Ireland’s future if they are to contribute to a realistic, corporate vision of a peaceful land. Paradoxically, it was easier to press for peace when it was still a distant prospect. Now that peace has a shape — the contentious, bureaucratic shape of an elected assembly a north-south body, the decommissioning of arms, the Speedy release of paramilitary prisoners, and so on — it has become less romantic and harder to envision.
Take the argument for the release of paramilitary prisoners, one which, we are told, was central in keeping Sinn Fein at the table. When Gordon Wilson spoke of forgiveness after the death of his daughter at Enniskillen, his words found echoes in many hearts. But now there is the prospect of forgiveness being tested to the full. For many thousands in Ireland, it could mean watching the killer of a husband or a child walking free, to enjoy a peace which is forever denied to his victims. Churchmen like the Archbishop of Armagh have seen enough of their people’s pain to know that, for some at least, this is asking too much.
This is not a time for euphoria, then, but for resolve. The text of the agreement acknowledges this: “The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. But we can best honour them through a fresh start.” If the people of Northern Ireland agree, now is the time to say so.
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