Northern Ireland: Between Optimism and Hope

BELFAST: The French say that optimists are those who don’t understand a question. This week’s events in Northern Ireland contradict such cynicism. One of Europe's most intractable conflicts could be nearing resolution as key elements of the Belfast Agreement signed in April 1998 and endorsed by referendums in both parts of Ireland were implemented. Substantial constitutional changes have transformed British-Irish relations with many lessons for other conflicts in Europe and elsewhere.

The Irish Nobel laureate poet Seamus Heaney distinguishes between optimism – the wish for a better future – and hope, the more rationally grounded expectation that it can indeed come to pass. In that case hope and history would rhyme, as he put it in a celebrated phrase. Following these momentous events Northern Ireland is suspended somewhere between optimism and hope.

A 10-person cross-party, cross-community, power-sharing executive was formed in Belfast on Thursday December 2 to govern functions devolved from the British government in London. Ireland’s government dropped its territorial claim to Northern Ireland. The principle of consent is accepted, meaning Northern Ireland 's constitutional status as a part of the United Kingdom stands unless a majority of its citizens vote to unite with Ireland.

Cross-border governmental bodies have been established to deal with policies affecting Northern Ireland and Ireland itself. A new British-Irish treaty and British-Irish Council provide a forum for the sovereign governments and devolved executives. The Irish Republican Army, Sinn Fein's paramilitary wing, has appointed a representative to liaise with an independent body charged with overseeing the decommissioning of arms by Northern Ireland’s paramilitary groups.