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A Sad Test of Irish Peace - and Principle

As the marching drums began to beat last week in Northern Ireland, they drowned out the emerging voices of tolerance, cooperation, and peace. The current crisis over the Protestant marching season has returned the province to ugly, sectarian violence. The new regional government had to act quickly and decisively, selecting sound policy over blind politics, in order to forestall chaos. That did not occur until it was too late.

The recent upheaval began with the Parades Commission's ruling that the traditional Portadown parade, through the Catholic Garvaghy Road area, had to be changed in order to prevent a repeat of last year's violence. The marches celebrate the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over the Roman Catholic King James II 300 years ago. Very few were left celebrating by Sunday, after the violence incited by the stand-off claimed the lives of three innocent little boys in Ballymoney. The crisis has served as a test of the new Assembly leadership, and so far they have failed.

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Although not officially binding until next year, the actions of the Assembly and First Minister David Trimble (Ulster Unionist Party) hold the future of the peace process in the balance. This crisis comes as Mr. Trimble is already facing challenges to his authority. Attempting to stave off dissent within the unionists, Trimble has decried the Parades Commission's Drumcree decision as "violating the human rights of a distinct portion of the citizens of Northern Ireland," and has been ambiguous on the issue of seating Sinn Fein ministers. Following such policies of appeasement has allowed the situation to spiral out of control until Sunday's tragedy, or something like it, was inevitable.

For the system to work it must guarantee two key factors: political equality between the two communities and security for each of their interests within the democratic process. Both components are threatened by current policy.

Both communities must feel that the laws of the state apply equally to all, whoever is in government. At the Drumcree stand-off one Orangeman was reported as protesting "[the security forces] never fought the IRA like this." Students of "the Troubles" would certainly disagree. It remains that the tone of the Orange marches is steeped in triumphalism, although the new agreement protects citizens of Northern Ireland with the right to freedom from sectarian harassment.

Political equality demands that Sinn Fein be allowed to take their elected positions in government without delay. More importantly, though, it means that leaders must be willing to act in accordance with principle, rather than with uncompromising loyalty to hard-liners within their own community. The failure to ensure equality of both the letter and spirit of the law destroys what precious little legitimacy the new institutions have.

Can the IRA be expected to proceed with decommissioning if the new government does not give credible protection to the nationalist community from sectarian harassment under the new constitutional arrangement? The Ulster Volunteer Force, a unionist paramilitary group, has warned that the death of any Orangeman is an "act of war" that will invalidate the cease-fire in place since 1994. Do the deaths of Richard, Mark, and Jason Quinn not constitute an act of war against something much more sacred than a 15-minute march?

There comes a time when a leader must make the hard sacrifices for peace. Anwar Sadat, Yitzak Rabin, and others have had the fortitude to do so, and paid the ultimate price for their courage. Trimble may have squandered a precious opportunity to follow in their heroic footsteps. His support among unionists is dwindling. Without a firm commitment to the principles of the new agreement, including the freedom from sectarian harassment, Trimble will also lose the backing of those who voted for the referendum. An Orangeman at Drumcree was quoted as saying that Trimble would "be lynched if he showed his face here." Unfortunately for all involved, Trimble's actions hold much more than only his own fate in the balance.

Earlier this year a majority of voters on both sides endorsed a nonviolent framework for resolving political questions. Now the only question is whether Trimble and other leaders are willing to apply that principle. If Northern Ireland is to enjoy any success on its path toward peace, Trimble and others must stand firm against extremists from all sides, whatever the political costs. Choices made in the coming days will determine whether the Quinn brothers will be the last who have to die in the name of ancient hatred, or whether the fragile peace will be trampled to death on Garvaghy Road.

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* Sen Patrick Eudaily is a research analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington.


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