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Northern Ireland: Conflicting Sides Formed United Government

For decades, northern Ireland has been the scene of a seemingly intractable sectarian conflict between Protestant and Catholic militants. After months of intensive diplomacy, the two sides recently came together in peace to form a joint government. London correspondent Ben Partridge traces the events that led to the rapprochement.

London, 10 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Commentators used words like "historic" and "momentous" to describe the first meeting last week of a new multi-party parliamentary assembly in which long-time enemies sat together around a table for the first time.

The meeting of Northern Ireland's executive assembly brought together Protestant and Catholic leaders in what is seen as one of the most significant events in 30 years of sectarian strife. More than 3,600 people have died in Northern Ireland and on the British mainland since 1969 in terrorist bombings and shootings carried out by rival Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups.

The conflict has its roots in the 1921 partition of Ireland -- then a British colony -- when the Catholic south won its independence, while the Protestant north chose to remain under British rule.

The Catholic nationalist minority in Northern Ireland has never accepted partition and wanted to link the province to the independent Irish Republic. The Protestant majority -- known as unionists or loyalists -- has been determined to maintain the union with Britain.

Both sides are sticking to these aims. But Chris West, a BBC correspondent who has covered Northern Ireland's tortuous politics for years, tells RFE/RL that they are also reaching out for peace:

"Well, I think the prospects are looking better than I have seen them for many, many years. You have got the extraordinary sight of republicans and nationalists sitting down around the table with unionist politicians. They have formed an executive -- this is the first time this has happened in 26 years -- and all the signs at the moment are good."

The present troubles began in 1967 when Catholic civil rights groups took to the streets, complaining that the Protestant majority discriminated in jobs, housing and education. Sectarian rioting erupted, and the British government sent troops to keep order.

The mainly Catholic Irish Republican Army -- or IRA -- killed hundreds as it shot British soldiers and bombed Protestant districts. Protestant militants responded by bombing Catholic pubs. Republicans accused British troops of siding with the unionists. The spiral of violence caused Britain to replace Northern Ireland's Protestant-leaning parliament with direct rule from London.

In 1984, the IRA grabbed world headlines when it bombed an English resort hotel during the Conservative party conference, almost killing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and key aides.

The latest peace drive began last year, when Protestant and Catholic politicians concluded the Good Friday Agreement (concluded on the Friday before Christian Easter) which aimed to build on a lengthy -- if broken -- ceasefire by both sides.

International mediation was key to the accord. Chris West was asked how much of a role former U.S. senator George Mitchell played in bringing the two sides together:

"A good deal, I think. Certainly, George Mitchell is very, very highly regarded in Northern Ireland. He's the man who set the ball rolling, who brokered the Good Friday agreement. And also the intervention of [U.S.] President [Bill] Clinton in making Northern Ireland feel that, at least, they are players on a world stage, they are not just isolated, that this is not just some small country on the edge of Europe, about which nobody else cares."

Under the Good Friday agreement, Catholic nationalists accepted that Northern Ireland will remain part of the U.K., as long as a majority of the population is in favor. In turn, the Protestant unionist majority agreed to share power with the nationalists. The agreement set up new bodies linking community leaders in the North and South of Ireland in new consultative arrangements.

The Good Friday agreement was approved in referendums staged last year in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The peace process was pushed forward jointly by the British and Irish governments, keen to end the bloodshed and revive Northern Ireland's battered economy. London dropped its claim to be the sovereign power in Northern Ireland, while Dublin renounced its territorial claim to the north.

But the agreement was not implemented until last week, when local power was transferred from the government in London to the new multi-party assembly, which met for the first time in Northern Ireland's capital, Belfast. The new government is made up of long-time nationalist and unionist foes, including a former commander of the IRA.

The peace process still faces a big hurdle -- getting rid of weapons. Protestant Unionist leaders have threatened to quit the new provincial government in February unless the IRA meets its obligation to start handing over its huge arsenal of weapons, a process known as decommissioning.

Chris West says the political will of the IRA is what counts:

"Don't forget that the IRA alone has a massive stockpile of weapons, and so too do the loyalist groups. It's not really a question of seeing all these arms handed over. I don't think we'll ever see that, or we won't see them all destroyed. Certainly, it's more a question of: Is there the will to decommission arms? Is there the will not to use them?"

A Canadian general, John de Chastelain, will oversee the decommissioning process. The IRA has appointed an envoy to de Chastelain's international panel, but has n-o-t directly promised to hand over weapons. Another danger is that renegade republicans or unionists could wreck the peace by resuming shootings and bombings.

The question now is whether the politicians will put aside their hatreds, break the cycle of blame and accusation, and get on with the business of government. Commentators say this will not be easy, but that it is what most of the people of Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic alike, want their leaders to do.