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N. Ireland's critical moment

Northern Ireland is approaching another pivotal moment which could signal the end of its peace process. Two simultaneous crises appear poised to bring down the historic peace accord signed in 1998 between unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, and nationalists, who want Northern Ireland to become part of the Irish Republic.

First, the Unionist community is deeply fractured and support for the peace agreement seems to be waning. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Northern Ireland's largest party, lost a parliamentary by-election last week to its rival unionist party, which opposes the peace agreement. David Trimble, Northern Ireland's first minister and leader of the UUP, had staked a great deal of his leadership capital on this election. But with only 53 percent UUP support for his reentry into government with Sinn Fein (the IRA's political wing) last May, Mr. Trimble is increasingly vulnerable to his opponent within the party, Jeffrey Donaldson, a strong critic of the accord.

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If Trimble loses his party's support, the political institutions created from the agreement are likely to fall as well. Drawing this same conclusion, the British government interceded in February to suspend the institutions, rather than see Trimble resign.

Two factors weaken Trimble's position. First, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) has not disarmed. Although it has opened its weapons stockpiles to international inspection, the last inspection occurred in June, and no further steps have since been taken. Rumors that the IRA continues to procure weapons add to the tension.

Second, Trimble's party foolishly maintains the symbols and name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the mostly Protestant Northern Ireland police force, despite an international review recommending its reform. Nationalists are deeply concerned about the British government's duplicity on the Patten Commission's recommendations to reform the RUC.

Originally accepting the reforms, the British government has since backtracked in consideration of unionist sensitivities to any depreciation of the RUC's reputation. Nationalists have held that reform of the RUC is essential to long-term peace in the province. Their supporters, in the Irish government, the US House of Representatives, and the White House, have underscored the necessity of police reform. Without these changes, both the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Sinn Fein - Northern Ireland's nationalist parties - have said they cannot recommend their constituents join the service. But, the UUP has passed an internal motion requiring Trimble to resign from government if the RUC name is changed.

Together these crises could undermine the peace process in Northern Ireland. Progress towards resolution in one, however, may mean progress in the other. The IRA must continue the process of putting its arms beyond use, and international pressure should remain on them to do so. Convincing his followers that entering and continuing government with Sinn Fein will further the peace process is Trimble's only chance to stay in office.

Pressure must also be brought on the rival loyalist paramilitaries to stop the feud that has recently claimed three lives. Dissolving the double standards that single out the IRA for criticism would make it more possible for the IRA to disarm.

The Patten problem is the least tractable. The British government must be very careful not to sacrifice nationalist confidence for the sake of pleasing unionists. Finding a way to honor the past sacrifices and service of the RUC while remaining committed to change may be the only possibility for accommodation. The British must shift attention to solidifying the successes of the agreement or risk its collapse.

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-- Kimberly Cowell-Meyers is a visiting assistant professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland and a former senior fellow of the Ireland leadership program at American University.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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