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This mural along the Falls Road of Belfast portrays Sinn Fein firebrand Gerry Adams as a contemporary statesman. The police are more interested in his past. (PAUL HACKETT/Reuters)
This mural along the Falls Road of Belfast portrays Sinn Fein firebrand Gerry Adams as a contemporary statesman. The police are more interested in his past. (PAUL HACKETT/Reuters)

The real threat to peace in Northern Ireland Add to ...

History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake - James Joyce, Ulysses

The past is certainly proving to be a nightmare for long-time republican Gerry Adams, whose arrest last week has left Northern Ireland’s peace process in crisis.The dramatic turn of events – he has been released after four days in custody but may still face charges related to a murder that took place almost 42 years ago – raises important questions. Is the failure of Northern Ireland’s peace pact to deal with the sins of the past the real reason for the current crisis? And, by refusing to acknowledge the true nature of his background, did Mr. Adams bring this on himself?

For most of the quarter-century or so during which I reported on the violence, it was an accepted truth among nearly all my colleagues that, like the Middle East, this dispute was impervious to a peaceful resolution. It would go on, we reckoned, forever.

British troops had patrolled the streets of Belfast and the pretty lanes and byways of counties Tyrone and Armagh since 1969 and, while the carnage had declined from the bad, early years, the warring groups – the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which fought to reunite the north with the rest of Ireland, and Protestant paramilitaries that killed to keep it under the Union Jack – had stubbornly resisted all efforts by the British security forces to extinguish them.

The death toll surpassed 3,000 – equivalent (given that the population was just 1.5 million) to 600,000 in the United States and 70,000 in Canada, and large enough to be regarded as a civil war in most countries. The Troubles, as we Irish called the conflict, had touched nearly everyone. There was hardly a person in the place who had not had a family member, a friend, an acquaintance killed or injured, imprisoned, forced to flee their homes or affected in some way.

The political leaders of the divided Catholic and Protestant communities were as immovable as their paramilitary brethren. If anyone symbolized their inflexibility, it was the towering Ian Paisley, who seemed to roar “No!” to almost every suggestion for moving out of the morass.

And then suddenly the ice moved and cracked and things began to change. Of course, it had not happened suddenly, just out of view. Behind the scenes and for several years, unknown even to their supporters, leaders of the paramilitary groups had started to talk about peace.

Prime among the groups doing this was the IRA, whose political wing, Sinn Fein (Irish for We Ourselves), glimpsed the possibility of political gains if the violence ended.

In 1994, an IRA ceasefire was called. It broke down briefly, was restored and, in 1998, with the direct assistance of the U.S., British and Irish governments, the political parties brokered the Good Friday Agreement.

The Troubles had come to an end – or so it appeared.

The peace pact foresaw a power-sharing government in Belfast, a complete end to violence and the destruction of paramilitary arsenals, the release of prisoners and a new policing arrangement, one that was more acceptable to Catholics.

It took another eight long, hard years of negotiating to put all the pieces in place. Eventually the IRA agreed to decommission its weapons, and its political leaders accepted the new police. Strangely, or not, the two most extreme parties, Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, had gained most from the new dispensation, by now officially termed “the peace process.” Gorged with votes and now the dominant representatives of their communities, they formed the senior partners running the new government.

And so the world – and Northern Ireland – was treated to the extraordinary sight of Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander, and Ian Paisley, the “Mr. No” of local politics, in the two top jobs. A photo of them in 2006 seated side by side and grinning like Cheshire cats earned them the sobriquet, “the chuckle brothers.” The seemingly impossible and unthinkable had happened. Everything seemed rosy.

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