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Jewish World Review May 24, 2000 / 19 Iyar, 5760

Cal Thomas

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Will peace be
given a chance? --
Belfast, NORTHERN IRELAND -- This Saturday could mark the beginning of the end of a modern 30-years war whose roots reach back centuries. Most Catholics want a united Ireland run from Dublin. Most Protestants are loyal to Britain and prefer that the North remain separate.

A middle ground allowing both sides to share power was agreed to, but Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, pulled out when it felt the unionist side was not taking its disarmament proposal seriously. Sinn Fein has made the extraordinary promise to put IRA weapons "beyond use'' and open weapons dumps to outside inspection. A London Times editorial properly characterized the offer as "revolutionary.'' Yet, some unionist radicals say the republicans can't be trusted to keep their word.

A vote by the unionist assembly is set for May 27, and David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader, has been busy shoring up support for the agreement.

It is gratifying to hear Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams say that even if the proposal is rejected by the UUP, "things will never be the same again.'' In several interviews, Adams has promised that the days of terrorism and violence will not return, though he can only speak for his organization and not for radicals in paramilitary groups on both sides who have engaged in freelance tit-for-tat killings since the late 1960s.

Sinn Fein seized the moral high ground with its proposal to put its weapons "beyond use,'' though Trimble has been seeking clarification of that term. If the unionists reject the proposal, they will have ceded moral and political territory to Gerry Adams and the IRA. But if they accept the offer, it will then be up to the IRA and Sinn Fein to prove they can deliver and not play word games or hide weapons from the inspectors. Some supporters of the agreement note that the unionist side can pull out at any time should Sinn Fein and the IRA break their word.

Rejectionists are fighting a propaganda war in an attempt to sink the agreement before the vote. Anonymously authored pamphlets have appeared on the streets. One published excerpt quotes the pamphlet as saying that when the British were informed of the new IRA initiative, "they were told
bluntly that the alternative to the early restoration of the executive and other institutions was a resumption of the armed campaign and bombs in London during the British general election next year.'' Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Mandelson derided the leaflets circulated by the rejectionist camp as "worthy of Goebbels himself.''

The "no'' advocates accuse the British government and the UUP, chiefly Trimble, of giving away the store in order to win a political victory at the expense of the unionists's hope to maintain strong ties with London. Sinn Fein spokespersons want people to believe they have chosen the political arena over violence to achieve their objectives. The only way to find out is to take Sinn Fein at its word and put it to the test.

Economic expansion may overwhelm this ancient religious-political conflict. There is a building boom throughout Ireland. Though inflation is high at 5 percent, new homes and roads are under construction and jobs are being created. Signs of budding affluence are everywhere, including in stubborn pockets of poverty in the south. For the first time in many decades, Ireland is seeing its native sons and daughters returning from other lands.

This conflict seems to be a relic of the past. With much of the rest of the world moving on to seize the prosperity offered by new technology and new markets, a continuation of this ancient religious and political war is absurd. But as Belfast artist Ross Wilson told me, "The past has always had a great future in Ireland.'' Whether that remains true will be decided by the Unionists on Saturday. Can they seize the future with a "yes'' vote or will the past seize them?

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