- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

The stars have aligned in Northern Ireland for what promises to be an historic power-sharing agreement. On Monday, the Rev. Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams assented to a previously unthinkable joint administration for Northern Ireland set to commence in May, headed by Mr. Paisley with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness — the former chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army — as second in command. First-person accounts suggest that it was an icy encounter at Belfast’s Stormont Parliament building in which neither man looked directly at the other and the two did not shake hands, but nevertheless struck a bargain.

Pressure from Dublin and London, “Celtic Tiger” economics, the self-interest of key leaders, the settling of contentious policing issues in January and local elections three weeks ago cementing Mr. Paisley’s leadership all factored into an agreement which is no one’s first preference but surely beats a return to “the Troubles,” even as it entails serious compromises. Most serious among those is what some justifiably call a Faustian bargain of awarding power to people who are linked to terrorist activity and in some cases credibly called terrorists. A politics of expediency, which seems to be the right way to characterize the current mood in Northern Ireland regarding these recent negotiations, can sometimes be that way.

The agreement is expected to entail significant elements of self-rule by the joint administration which just a few years ago Mr. Paisley would likely have rejected. Whether and how Messrs. Paisley and Adams can cooperate remains to be seen. There are plenty of skeptics, which makes sense after decades of Mr. Paisley’s refusal to enter the room with Mr. Adams and the latter’s history of violence against Unionism. At minimum, though, the announcement in January that Sinn Fein would support Ulster’s police without reservation is the key missing element to the beginnings of permanent public security, the sina qua non of workable government.

Much of the momentum behind this agreement is attributed to pressure from London and Dublin to reach a deal or else face a joint-rule arrangement by both governments, which would have shunted both Mr. Paisley and Sinn Fein from center stage. The other external element was the seemingly mundane but significant threat to impose a highly unpopular tap-water tax, the specter of which seems to have moved matters appreciably.

Economic factors also played a large role. Both Mr. Paisley and Mr. Adams pay tribute to Ireland’s remarkable economic expansion, wondering aloud why Ulster should not partake in the success of the “Celtic Tiger,” whose decade of growth in annual ranges of 10 percent make it Europe’s most dynamic economy of recent years. Indeed there is no good reason why it should not, except for the ongoing political dispute in which these two men are the pivotal players on their respective sides. The expected economic integration with the rest of Ireland is something which all sides disregard at risk of public ire.

Then there are issues of control and legacy, which conspired from all sides toward this week’s outcome. Mr. Paisley’s pre-eminence was cemented in local elections three weeks ago; the hypocrisy of his turn to negotiate with Sinn Fein is much less of a political liability. Meanwhile, for Sinn Fein, the negotiations build on a position of relative military weakness. They cement significant Adams-McGuinness influence in a government which isn’t going anywhere short of a wholesale collapse which all parties now have significant incentive to avoid.

Some have rightly expressed shock that Sinn Fein leaders with blood on their hands could soon be ruling Northern Ireland in conjunction with Mr. Paisley. This is indeed sordid business. No one ever said a settlement to Western Europe’s most intractable conflict would be tidy. It is up to the citizens of Ulster to decide whether the inclusion of these leaders is acceptable. So far, they appear to.

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