Still talking in Northern Ireland, ten years after IRA ceasefire – ISN

DERRY – Tuesday marked the 10-year anniversary of the first IRA ceasefire, the culmination of years of official and behind-the-scenes negotiation and confidence building.

After yet more intricate and stop-and-start dealings, the way was paved for the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998, aimed at permanently settling the 30 year civil conflict in Northern Ireland. With the guns largely silent and the daily litany of bombings, assassinations, and sectarian murder now largely a thing of the past, the focus is on the current political impasse that has stalled the implementation of the landmark peace deal.

Northern Ireland’s three decades of civil conflict up to 1998 saw over 3,600 people killed as mostly Catholic Irish nationalists and republicans, who want Northern Ireland to merge with the Republic of Ireland to the south, faced off against mostly Protestant unionists or loyalists who want to remain part of the United Kingdom. British soldiers flooded into Northern Ireland but were viewed by many nationalists as a hostile occupation force.

There has been a mixture of positive and negative signals emanating from Northern Ireland in the run-up to Wednesday’s discussions. Last year’s Assembly elections resulted in an apparent polarization of Northern Irish politics, with the ostensibly more “hard-line” parties on both the Protestant/unionist and Catholic/nationalist divide coming out on top.

One of those parties is Sinn Féin, allegedly the political wing of the IRA. The complete decommissioning of the vast IRA arsenal and the ultimate disbandment of the paramilitary group have always been key unionist demands. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), now the leading unionist party — which opposes the Good Friday Agreement — initially dismissed any possibility of entering a devolved government with Sinn Féin.

However recent weeks have seen some positive soundbites coming from both sides. Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams has hinted that the IRA could be disbanded, perhaps pending a successful peace-building process in Northern Ireland.

The DUP reacted coolly to these statements — welcoming them as having potential but retaining their opposition to the Good Friday Agreement and to power-sharing in the immediate future. The DUP’s electoral success was down to their uncompromising opposition to Sinn Féin, which appealed to unionist voters seemingly put off by concessions made by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), previously the main unionist group and which supported the peace deal.

Wednesday’s discussions will be chaired by Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen and British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Paul Murphy. Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster on Tuesday, Murphy said that people wanted an end to direct rule, but clearly saw the problems facing the review of the agreement to be discussed on Wednesday. “This is a different problem that we face, that the DUP is opposed to the Agreement and the other parties are in favour,” he said.

Wednesday’s talks will pave the way for summit-level negotiations hosted by both the British and Irish governments in Kent on 16 September, aimed at restoring the devolved institutions of government in Northern Ireland.

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