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Rescuing N. Irish peace

REMEMBER the Good Friday Agreement of 1998? It was one of Bill Clinton's foreign policy triumphs that flowed from the relentless efforts and diplomacy of his envoy, former Senator George Mitchell.


The potential was enormous for the peace process. Not only did it create a robust framework for a negotiated endgame to the age-old conflict, but it delivered to Northern Ireland's Catholics what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was to America's people of color. It mandated a level playing field -- after 50 years of blatant discrimination -- in access to employment, housing, education, and public services and accommodation. Its centerpiece: a power-sharing governing executive of 108 democratically elected representatives of all the people of Northern Ireland. It was approved at the time by 71 percent of the electorate.

Now, with the Nov. 26 electoral returns in, the Agreement is under duress. As was feared by many observers, Ian Paisley's right-wing unionist Democratic Ulster Party gained 10 seats, for a total of 30, the largest bloc in the assembly. At the nationalist left wing, Sinn Fein gained six seats, for a total of 24 seats. Both extremes gained at the expense of the more moderate unionist and nationalist parties of David Trimble and John Hume, both Nobel Peace laureates.

Paisley, in patented fashion, has proudly announced his refusal to sit in government with "murderers" (Sinn Fein) and said, "The Agreement is over . . . It's dead in the water . . . " This might well have some basis in reality were it not for an event that went all but unnoticed on Oct. 22.

Up to that point, the major sticking point had been the unwillingness of the IRA to publicly renounce violence or the threat of force and to demonstrate good faith with a "significant" act of disarmament. As part of the Good Friday Agreement, an Independent International Commission on Decommissioning was set up under Canadian General John de Chastelain to supervise the disarmament process.

Before October, two decommissioning events took place but lacked any express commitment from the IRA to support the peace process. Then Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams held a press conference declaring: "Sinn Fein's position is one of total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences."

The IRA immediately affirmed that Adams "accurately reflects our position" -- effectively ending three decades of armed struggle. Further, they backed it up by dumping a huge cache of arms under close supervision. The conditions for agreement had been met, Trimble and Adams agreed, and confirmed it with Blair and Bertie Ahearn, the Irish prime minister. The evening headlines blared: "Done Deal!"

It was, of course, too good to be true. Trimble returned to his party and found violent opposition to the agreement. Paisley and his allies were not about to let an IRA concession go unpunished. This, in spite of the fact that the process had been followed to the letter of the Agreement.

Once again, the Paisleyites had changed the rules in midstream. This debacle was the backdrop to the Nov. 26 election. Yet, this crisis in Northern Ireland offers an unusual opportunity for the Bush-Blair partnership to take the high ground.

First, Bush could make good on his promise to "be there" if needed. The time is now. He could begin by appointing a worthy successor to George Mitchell, adding American clout to see the Agreement through. Next, he could allocate some fraction of the "prevention of terrorism" budget to Northern Ireland's peace process.

Tony Blair now has a chance to show the same resoluteness he has shown on Iraq and confront "the purveyors of hate" -- George Mitchell's words for Paisleyites. He needs to hold them accountable for the sabotage of the peace process.

He also needs to stop scapegoating Adams, or at least show some even-handedness. It would be immensely helpful if he were to give Adams and Sinn Fein credit for delivering on their commitments. What's the message to insurgents if all they can expect is ridicule for renouncing violence and joining the democratic process?

Finally, American citizens and politicians of all stripes who care about peace, social justice, freedom, and democracy need to support the grassroots community leaders in Ulster. These are the unsung heroes of the peace process. They are the ones who sow the seeds of hope, do the work of healing, and do it all on shoestring budgets. After 30 years of trauma, they desperately need money, skills, and infrastructure to rebuild their communities and bridge the sectarian divide in their schools, hospitals, workplaces, and housing projects.

For them, Nov. 26 is simply another bump in the road on a long and difficult journey. The future begins now, with two radically different scenarios. One plunges back down the gory path of vengeance and ethnic hatreds. The other moves ahead, planting the seeds of a new Ireland.

Thomas J. Rice is chairman of the Interaction Institute for Social Change in Cambridge.

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