Lasting peace in Northern Ireland?

Faculty Optimistic On Accord's Prospects

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Given a conflict marked so often by contradiction and false hope, part-time faculty member Raymond Helmick, SJ (Theology), says it is fitting to describe the recent Northern Ireland peace accord in similarly wary terms.
"It's a terrific accomplishment," said Fr. Helmick last week, "which isn't finished yet."

But Fr. Helmick, who has been involved in mediation attempts in the long-troubled region, praises the efforts of US negotiator George Mitchell in brokering the April 10 settlement. "He did very well to get an agreement that the parties could accept," Fr. Helmick said. How far this approval extends within the various Northern Irish constituencies is another matter, however, with referendums on the accord scheduled for May 22 in both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

"The North's Catholic population is likely to support the agreement, while a lot of the Protestants seem at least resigned to the possibility of its passage," Fr. Helmick said. "The referendum in the republic is likely to go very easily. The difficulty lies, of course, with the Irish Republican Army and the Unionists, both which have already shown significant signs of dissent."

Fr. Helmick predicted that Unionist Party leader David Trimble, one of the principals in the negotiations, would face "a struggle" at a party conference on the accord held this past weekend. Similarly, the IRA leadership has had to confront the defection of some rank-and-file members to splinter groups which have decried the peace process.

Assoc. Prof. Kevin O'Neill (History), Irish Studies Program co-director, agrees the fringe republican and loyalist groups represent the most dire threat - perhaps more so than before the accord.
Raymond Helmick, SJ.

"For a long, long time, there was a tacit understanding among the combatants that you don't assassinate major leaders," O'Neill said. "But this is the terrorists' last stand, and there is some genuine concern that now the leading politicians are very vulnerable."

O'Neill points out, however, that events may have moved beyond even the reach of desperate terrorists. "On the one hand, an assassination might cause a backlash that begins to unravel the process," he explained. "But it might have the opposite effect: People will close ranks and keep their eyes forward."

Visiting Prof. Marianne Elliott (History), a Belfast native, also describes herself as "cautiously optimistic" about the settlement. Like Fr. Helmick, she draws upon personal, direct observations of the conflict: A few years ago, she was a member of a peace commission formed to give Northern Irish citizens a forum to speak out about The Troubles.

"The sense this experience gave me is people do not want things to slide back," said Elliott, director of the University of Liverpool Institute of Irish Studies. "So it is encouraging that one could get an agreement from such divided parties, who only a few years ago wouldn't even talk to one another."

Elliot describes the May 22 referendums as "absolutely crucial," and adds that the measure of success is at a higher level for the accord.

"It will take a simple majority for the agreement to pass, and it will likely be accepted in the North," she explained. "But the size of the mandate is very important. If it's less than 60 percent, that is a bad sign, because there are enough potential trouble spots ahead like the prisoner releases and decommissioning of the paramilitaries."

Kevin O'Neill.

If true peace in Northern Ireland still lies far in the distance, Fr. Helmick and Elliott say, it is heartening to see the level of commitment demonstrated so far. They note the participation, for example, of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in helping the talks reach a successful conclusion.

"There is a lot of fear and stress still around," said Elliott. "Even so, we've come an awful long way."

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