This editorial first appeared in Tuesday's Los Angeles Times:
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A meeting in Northern Ireland on Monday was so dramatic that it makes President Nixon's visit to China look like a neighborly stroll. Although they reportedly didn't shake hands, Gerry Adams, the Irish nationalist leader of Sinn Fein, sat down in a parliamentary dining room in Belfast with the Rev. Ian Paisley, the 80-year-old anti-Catholic firebrand who heads the Democratic Unionist Party.
It isn't just that Adams and Paisley had to overcome a mutual personal antipathy. As politicians, they represent the extremes of their respective movements. Paisley is the heir of unionists who supported a "Protestant parliament for a Protestant people" for most of the 20th century. Adams' party is the political alter ego of the Irish Republican Army, a terrorist organization that only recently abandoned the "armed struggle" against Protestants and the British government.
Paradoxically, however, the extremism of the two leaders increases the likelihood that their uneasy collaboration will produce a durable coalition in which pro-British Protestants will share power over local affairs with Catholics who dream of a united Ireland.
Moderate Catholics and Protestants, with an assist from the Clinton administration, played a crucial role in ending "the troubles" in Northern Ireland that cost more than 3,500 lives over several decades, and in winning public support for the 1998 Good Friday agreement. But in recent elections for Northern Ireland's 108-member Assembly, the extremists - Paisley's party and Sinn Fein - excited voters' passions. The Democratic Unionist Party won the most seats - 36 - with Sinn Fein capturing 28.
Those results were a bitter pill for nationalists and unionists who always have opposed violence. But essential to the 1998 agreement was the idea of a government in Belfast that would reflect, and not just paper over, the deep divisions in Northern Ireland.
Those divisions persist despite a series of hopeful developments such as increasing cooperation between London and Dublin, the IRA's abandonment of violence and the reform of a police force once dominated by Protestants and distrusted by Catholics.
It's no accident that a leading academic study of Northern Ireland is titled "Governing Without Consensus." Certainly between Paisley and Adams (and their supporters) there is no consensus about whether the people of Northern Ireland are citizens of Britain or of Ireland.
If they are able to cobble together a government despite that disagreement, and if that government is responsive to both communities, Monday's meeting will be just as historic as Nixon's arrival in China in 1972.
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