On one side of the historical page are the hatred and bitterness resulting from 30 years of bullets and beatings in Northern Ireland. On the other side normal political life beckons: self-government, social peace, battles over budgets instead of bombs. The people of Northern Ireland now have a chance to turn that page after the 860 members of the Ulster Unionist Party council, leaders of the province's largest Protestant party, last week voted to give peace a chance. After a four-hour meeting in Waterfront Hall, a gleaming modern building that symbolizes the new Ulster, the U.U.P. council voted 58% to 42% to back party leader David Trimble's decision to jettison core party policy and join a new power-sharing executive for Ulster before the Irish Republican Army starts to decommission its weapons.
But the book is not yet closed on the province's Troubles. Many unionists remain deeply suspicious of I.R.A. intentions. Trimble won the vote, and prevented a major party split, only by promising to reconvene the council and resign as leader of the new government unless the I.R.A. turns over a big haul of weapons by February. The I.R.A. and its political wing Sinn Fein resents the arm twisting implicit in Trimble's threat, which will render any decommissioning something less than the purely "voluntary" act Sinn Fein committed to in last year's Good Friday agreement. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said Trimble's was "the wrong approach." But Trimble needed to set the deadline to win his majority, which was still smaller than his supporters had hoped. "Mr. Adams, over to you," he said. "We jumped. You follow."
The deal could also be sabotaged by breakaway I.R.A. members, who police warned may be planning a renewed bombing campaign out of frustration that Adams is willing to accept anything less than a united Ireland. But for now, at least, the U.U.P. council's decision to support Trimble saved the fragile peace process. It means that the still perilous effort to try to settle the Troubles will continue along the path laid out in last year's Good Friday agreement, a meticulously balanced blueprint that ensures power sharing among the major parties, commits Sinn Fein to accepting Britain's indefinite sovereignty over Ulster and creates new cross-border bodies that will knit Ulster more closely to the Irish Republic.
All last week, Northern Ireland's other parties tried to lower the political temperature as the unionists prepared for the big vote on which everybody's future would depend. After two senior I.R.A. figures reportedly told American audiences that they expected to get away with minimal decommissioning--because, they reasoned, London would never dare punish them by shutting down Ulster's new government--Adams gave his most soothing speech ever. Talking to republican activists in a Dublin hotel bedecked with Christmas decorations, he paid tribute to Trimble's courage, reiterated Sinn Fein's commitment to a weapons turnover on the (still vague) terms negotiated with Mitchell, and said his immediate goal was to forge a "partnership with unionism that will see us labor together within the new institutions and govern in fairness and in honesty."
The debate within unionism was more agitated. As he arrived at Waterfront Hall for the big meeting, Trimble was greeted with shouts of "Traitor!" and "You've lied to the people of Ulster." But all week he had been pressing delegates for votes, on the phone, over quiet cups of coffee in his office, in meetings at local party chapters. At a crucial moment in the council meeting, when a delegate shouted out that Trimble had betrayed the memory of party members who had been murdered by the I.R.A., he pulled out a letter from the widow of one of them backing his risk for peace.
The absence of any coherent alternative to Mitchell's plan meant that the "no" camp had an uphill struggle. One activist--Jonathan Bell, a social worker and local councilor from Trimble's own constituency who broke with him despite helping to run his last parliamentary campaign--sent video tapes with grisly pictures of I.R.A. atrocities to all the delegates and organized a phone bank to identify and persuade waverers. Bell also wrote to the U.U.P.'s 184 local councilors outlining the party's recent electoral decline, and warning that half of them would be out of a job if the trend continued through the next election. "The I.R.A. is still an active terror organization, which is continuing to murder and mutilate and drive people into exile without sanction," he argued. "To a certain extent they've exchanged Armalites for Armanis. But they have no place in a democratic government." Nor did he believe the promise by Britain's Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, to suspend the new government if the I.R.A. failed to hand in weapons. "There's no fail-safe mechanism if they don't decommission," he said.
In the end those arguments failed to persuade, and Bell's fellow U.U.P. councilor Mark Neale, who voted with Trimble, explained why. "Voting no meant we wouldn't get an accountable government in Northern Ireland," he said. "We would have threatened the union with Britain because the Brits would wash their hands of us--and I wouldn't blame them. And we would have absolutely no chance of getting decommissioning." The "no" camp, he warned, offered nothing for the future. "We have to realize the I.R.A. has moved, and like them or hate them, we have to work with them. If they don't decommission and we have to suspend the institutions of government, we'll be no worse off than we are today. We can take a risk for a few months."
Trimble now becomes First Minister of the government slated to form this week. He must work out a common program with 10 new ministers in an enforced coalition of four parties likely to disagree as much on the nuts and bolts of social policy as they have previously on how to make peace. He also faces a war of attrition from Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party which has 20 Assembly members compared to the U.U.P.'s 28. It still opposes having Sinn Fein ministers in the executive and is expected to try to kick them out. The D.U.P. can take advantage of the complex rules that require support from substantial numbers of both nationalists and unionists on key votes. But Trimble's promise to resign in February if the I.R.A. doesn't decommission has averted a major split in his own party that the D.U.P. was hoping to exploit for votes. Their own willingness to sit with Sinn Fein in the new executive has made them look hypocritical anyway, though they insist their only goal is to wreck anything Sinn Fein tries to do.
The biggest danger for Northern Ireland's new government is how the I.R.A. will react to Trimble's February deadline for handing over a sizable haul of weapons. If they continue to postpone decommissioning and Trimble quits as First Minister, there will be very little left of Northern Ireland's new government or the peace process. Many observers think the I.R.A. will decommission just enough to avoid blame for wrecking it.
To many in Northern Ireland the wrangling over the details of peace has seemed interminable, the product of insular politicians too long rewarded for staring backward. At the lighting of the huge Christmas tree in the center of Belfast last week, 20,000 people laughed and sang, buoyed by the growing prosperity evident all around them and their conviction that the war really is over even if the paperwork is delayed. The mood was something absent from the Ulster of the Troubles--optimistic. If the province's politicians want to get re-elected, they will have to pay attention--and make sure this week really does mark the start of a new chapter in the history of Northern Ireland.