After three years, controversy still swirls around Anglo-Irish pact
Derry, Northern Ireland
On this week's third anniversary of its signing, the Anglo-Irish Agreement remains largely unpopular with both Protestants and Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland. The agreement, though controversial, is many things to many people in this war-torn province. It has been called:
A ``diktat compounded of lies, treachery and deceit.''
A ``cynical exercise by the British'' that is doomed to fail.
A ``first step in the healing process'' which offers the framework for a peaceful solution to the problems of Northern Ireland.
These comments were made to the Monitor by leaders of three of Northern Ireland's political parties - the Official Unionist Party representing Protestants loyal to the British Crown; Sinn Fein, the political wing of the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA) which wants the British out of Ulster; and the Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) which represents moderate Roman Catholics in the province.
While polls show that the majority of people on both sides of the Northern Ireland conflict say the pact has not brought them benefits, both Dublin and London appear intent on keeping the accord largely unchanged after a mutual review process - which is currently under way and scheduled for completion by year's end.
The agreement affirms that the future of Northern Ireland depends on the democratic choice of its 1 million residents. After 20 years of violence, which has taken the lives of 2,700 people, the two governments hoped it would offer a settlement framework.
By giving the Republic of Ireland a consultative voice in Northern Irish affairs, the agreement sought to guarantee the minority Catholic community that its rights would be respected. It also aimed to strengthen public confidence in the administration of justice and to deter the flow of arms and personnel of the IRA across the nearly 300 miles of border which divides Northern Ireland under British rule from the Republic of Ireland.
Progress on these issues is a matter of interpretation and controversy over a series of sometimes technical legal changes, adjustments in criminal procedure, and shifts in the operating practices of Irish and British security forces. But there has been no obvious movement on the larger political issues which divide the territory.
Still, Tom King, British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, defends the agreement as bringing ``a new and more creative period in Anglo-Irish relations. ``At the heart of the agreement is the commitment to protect the rights and identities of the two traditions in Northern Ireland [Protestant and Catholic], to protect human rights, and to prevent discrimination,'' he said at Oxford University.
But for James Molyneaux, leader of the Official or Ulster Unionist Party, the agreement remains a ``diktat'' that he and other unionists want to replace. Mr. Molyneaux says the accord has failed to bring the peace, stability, and reconciliation it promised. ``That's a cruel paradox - it produced exactly the opposite,'' he said in an interview with the Monitor. ``As far as reconciliation is concerned, it has to be admitted that the gulf between the two sides of the community is wider and deeper than it has ever been in the past 10 to 15 years,'' he said.
Molyneaux points to the number of violent incidents which have risen since 1985 after several years of decline. He and other unionists also point to the increase in weapons deliveries to the IRA in the past two years and to the large number of unsolved terrorist crimes.
Critics have accused the unionists of political rigidity and say that until 1985 they exercised a virtual veto power in Ulster politics which has now been removed.
``This has been a very painful experience for the unionists,'' John Hume, leader of the SDLP, told the Monitor. "They have lost their ascendancy and are now on an equal footing with the rest of us. That's the first stage of a solution to the problem.''
The unionists continue to wage an ``Ulster says no!'' campaign opposing the agreement, and have refused to enter into political talks until it is set aside. Some observers say unionist resistance is weakening, but Molyneaux disagrees. ``The British government hoped the 1985 agreement would be the ultimate weapon to break the mold of Unionism,'' he said. ``But they didn't succeed and they won't succeed if I have anything to do with it.'' Molyneaux insists there is no political solution to republican terrorism and denounces Hume's talks earlier this year with leaders of Sinn Fein.
In a meeting at his home in Derry, Sinn Fein's chairman for Northern Ireland, Mitchell McLaughlin, told the Monitor that Sinn Fein leaders had hoped to find common ground with the SDLP on the overall national interest of Ireland. He said Sinn Fein was looking for ways to bring about British disengagement from the province as a step toward the unification of Ireland under a democratic socialist government. ``The British can go either precipitately or over a period of time, but they have to go,'' Mr. McLaughlin said.
``McLaughlin's interpretation that we're really defending British interests is nonsense,'' Mr. Hume retorted. The SDLP leader, also a Derry-based politician, said that the agreement was the first time the British had dealt with the Irish problem in its proper framework - as an issue between London and Dublin and not merely a conflict within the six counties of Northern Ireland.