- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2000

President Clinton, who came this week to Northern Ireland, likes to think the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998 was one of his great accomplishments.

Apart from the fact he was but one pivotal actor among many, the truth is it is far too early to boast. The silencing of the guns and the creation of an Assembly in which sit militant Catholic Republicans who wish the North to be joined with independent Eire to the south, and equally passionate Protestants who want to ensure that the North is forever wedded to the United Kingdom, is an undoubted accomplishment. But it has all been done on a fudge.

At bottom the positions of both sides are irreconcilable and the stresses and strains that have made ribbons of previous understandings can resurface at any moment. Mr. Clinton can use his charisma to push things along an inch or two, but after he has gone home the fudges will remain in place, precarious, vulnerable and with a projected lifespan, depending on whom you talk to, from two months to a few years.

What the peace negotiators of Northern Ireland have taught the world with its plethora of ethnic conflicts is the power of ambiguity. But can ambiguity live forever? It has certainly brought six-and-a-half years of much diminished violence since the cease-fire of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in August 1994. It greatly facilitated the negotiations that led to creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly, its power-sharing executive and devolved government. It has allowed such obstacles as the refusal of the IRA to destroy their weapons caches to be finessed with words they have been put "beyond use."

But this art of the fudge has merely deferred many of the difficult questions to a later day. It is a wasting asset. At some point the electorate, or at least the activists, will push for clarity. One date already looms: By June 2001, the IRA is committed to decommissioning all its arms. Right now it is being pressed to allow more access to its arms caches, but is demanding in return a faster withdrawal of British troops and a speedy implementation of police reforms recommended by a government-appointed commission. If a fudge is tried again will the rank and file of the main Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, finally turn against its Nobel Prize-winning leader and first minister, David Trimble? Historians recall that the whole sorry mess of Northern Ireland is rooted in a fudge when in 1921 the Irish prime minister, Eamonn de Valera, went along with the creation of Northern Ireland, convincing himself and the Irish electorate that the border would be temporary, even though he well knew that Unionists had been overwhelmingly victorious in elections to a new devolved parliament in the Northeastern six counties seven months earlier.

Yet this has been the way peace has been made for the last seven years, with the parties both lying to each other and to themselves. It brings a near quietening of the guns, which a vast majority of both sides want more than anything else. Perhaps that is enough of an incentive to keep the ambiguity alive. It is what one observer called "a working misunderstanding." It has successfully created a non-violent political environment that enables each side to believe it can fulfill its political agenda by peaceful means, even though we outsiders can see the agendas are in fact irreconcilable. Down the road another great fudge looms, the development of de facto joint authority over Northern Ireland by both London and Dublin, which already the British government of Tony Blair is inching toward. If one day the Unionists can swallow this, it would give the IRA and their political party, Sinn Fein, if not the unity with the Southern republic to which they aspire, a great deal of what they are after. And in a united Europe, where borders by the day are becoming softer, it could in time be as sufficient as to make no difference to all but the most fanatical. This is to be optimistic. Perhaps the Good Friday Agreement is too flawed, built on too many compromises and ambiguities. Perhaps, as many doubting Unionists argue, the agreement has made the peace process hostage to the IRA's whims about disarmament and thus every time Sinn Fein/IRA don't get their way they will subtly or not so subtly raise once more the prospect of starting up a bombing campaign. But as Jonathan Stevenson has argued in an interesting article in Survival the sting could be taken out of that tail by the Unionists dropping the decommissioning requirement and merely insisting that none of the Sinn Fein representatives on the Northern Ireland executive be convicted of terrorist offenses. The hard fact remains that arms dumps or no arms dumps, the IRA has made, and can make again, some of its most devastating bombs out of fertilizer.

On balance, the optimists are winning the argument and their counsel holds sway, for now. This is why Mr. Clinton's visit can only be a useful one. But like many other accomplishments he lays claim to sponsorship of, we will not know if they are true successes until a lot more water has passed under the bridge.

Jonathan Power is a syndicated writer based in London, England.

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