New proposals aimed at bringing a lasting peace to Northern Ireland received both cheers and jeers from Irish Nationalists and British Unionists in the province--and continue to threaten British Prime Minister John Major's wafer-thin five-vote parliamentary majority.
In the framework document drawn up after two years of British-Irish negotiations, proposals include:
-- New institutions that would cross the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, giving both a place in each other's government for the first time. The main cross-border body would bring together representatives of a new Northern Ireland Parliamentary Assembly and the Irish Parliament.
-- Constitutional concessions on all sides, with the Republic of Ireland dropping its claim to Northern Ireland.
-- Devolved governmental powers to the Northern Ireland Parliamentary Assembly, with legislative and executive authority to run domestic affairs. Police, security, taxes, and foreign affairs would remain London's responsibility.
-- A charter of rights guaranteeing religious freedom and the right to equal opportunity regardless of class, creed, gender, or color.
The latest proposals come after a quarter-century of violence that has claimed more than 3,000 lives, and six months after the Irish Republican Army (Nationalist) and the Loyalist paramilitary group (Unionist) declared separate cease-fires. That cessation of violence convinced London and Dublin the time was right to publish jointly their carefully framed proposals, reflecting an agenda neither Nationalist nor Unionist. Nationalists have traditionally wanted unity with the Irish Republic; Unionists wish to retain links with Britain.
Both Major and John Bruton, the new Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, traveled to Belfast to unveil the plan--with each making concessions that would have been unthinkable in the past. The two stressed that the plan was not a blueprint but could serve as a catalyst to bring the sides together.
The Nationalist parties, including the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, promised to consider it carefully. One young Sinn Fein member from Belfast, Brian O'Donnell, 23, termed the framework "a pretty enlightened document." Another, Alison Dodds, 28, said: "The faster all-party talks get started, the better." There was qualified backing from the two smaller Unionist parties, which are generally thought to articulate the views of Loyalist paramilitary groups. That helped ease fears of a violent backlash. And all major parties in the Irish Republic gave it warm support.
It's still too early to determine the outcome, but if grassroots opinion on both sides of the divide is an indicator, the leadership of both camps may be forced to accept the proposals and move forward together. Major and Bruton have gambled heavily on acceptance by the people of Northern Ireland. "We seek to help peace," Major said, "but only the people of Northern Ireland can deliver it."
One opinion poll--for Britain's Channel 4 TV network--showed overwhelming support among Northern Ireland's Unionists for the talks that their elected representatives held with Dublin and the Nationalists. So far, however, the peace proposals have been excoriated by the leadership of the two main Unionist parties as a British betrayal.
The Reverend Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, angrily denounced the framework as "a one-way street to Dublin." His deputy, Peter Robinson, said it amounted to "an eviction notice to leave the United Kingdom." Ken Maginnis, security spokesman for the larger Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), said the proposal had "driven Northern Ireland back 10 years," a claim furiously rejected by John Major.
Not for the first time, the Irish problem is having its repercussions in the British Parliament. Both Unionist parties voted against Major's government in a crucial vote on European policy, and Ulster Unionist leader James Molyneaux announced the termination of UUP support, a move that could threaten the Conservative government's shaky majority in the months ahead.