BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Thirty-seven years of sectarian violence here — called “The Troubles” — are expected soon to be declared over. Two reports due early in 2006 are said to draw that conclusion.
One, by an international commission headed by a Canadian general, will report that the “decommissioning” of the weapons of the Irish Republican Army is proceeding satisfactorily. The other, by an international monitoring group, is expected to conclude that there is no longer an active threat of terrorism in Northern Ireland.
This could — but may not — break the two-year-old political stalemate that has kept the Northern Ireland Assembly (parliament) from sitting. The previous government collapsed when an uneasy coalition of the moderate Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, failed. In the ensuing election, the Rev. Ian Paisley’s more strident Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein were the winners. Neither was willing to come to terms with the other in order to form a new government. To fill the void, the British Foreign Office appointed a team of government ministers to manage the day-to-day affairs of Northern Ireland.
The six counties that make up Northern Ireland are peaceful today, although sectarian tensions have not gone away. For example, most of the public schools are, in fact, segregated. Protestant marching groups still stage provocative marches in Catholic neighborhoods and there are still taunting and demanding slogans on buildings and train trestles (“Welcome to Loyalist Larne,” “Free Sean Kelly NOW!”). Nevertheless, one gets a strong sense that the people are exhausted from the years of strife and want nothing more than to get on with their lives.
The Irish north was once stronger economically than the south, but that is no longer the case. Today it lacks a strong industrial base. The huge cranes of the shipyard where the Titanic and many other large vessels were built are quiet. Shipbuilding has gone elsewhere, mostly to South Korea. The famous Irish linen industry — along with flax-growing — is largely a memory. The influx of high-tech businesses to the Irish Republic has not extended to Northern Ireland.
It would not be easy for Sinn Fein and the DUP to govern jointly. The former’s objective remains unification with the Republic; the latter’s is to remain part of the United Kingdom. The third party to the Northern Ireland equation, the British government, would no doubt be happy to be freed altogether from its burden, a multi-billion-dollar annual subsidy pumped into Northern Ireland.
Some observers think Sinn Fein and the DUP could work out a short-term arrangement. After all, in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, both sides agreed that any structural change in Northern Ireland could only be made by a vote of the people. Sinn Fein wants to build electoral strength in the Republic, and it would suit its long-term interests to do the same in the north, hoping to have parallel cabinet ministers in both halves of Ireland. As for the DUP, its colorful leader, Paisley, is nearing 80 years of age and, it is said, would like to have as his legacy the position of First Minister in a new Northern Ireland Assembly.
For the long run, one former senior member of the government says that unification with the south is “inevitable, for economic reasons, if no other.” He cited the logic in having a joint electricity grid, joint tourism promotion, and common regulatory rules and practices as examples of benefits that would accrue to both. Meanwhile, it appears that more time must pass while the white hot passions of one generation are succeeded by the less ardent one of another.