Northern Ireland is British territory on mainland Ireland, which is divided between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, a part of Britain. What is now Northern Ireland was once the six counties of Ulster province of Ireland. This region remained united with Britain after the 26 remaining counties won independence from British rule in 1921 to form the Republic of Ireland.
The Republic of Ireland is largely Catholic, as England (the biggest part of Britain that includes also Scotland and Wales) is largely Protestant Christian. Ireland has a population today of about four million, and Britain about 60 million ? of which a little more than a million are in Northern Ireland.
The population of Northern Ireland is divided among Protestants and Catholics, with Protestants still the majority. Much of the Catholic population wants Northern Ireland to join the Irish Republic, and they are known therefore as the Republicans. Much of the Protestant population wants to Northern Ireland to remain united with Britain, and these are therefore called the Unionists.
Much of the political divide has arisen out of this. The DUP is the toughest voice of the Unionists, Sinn Fein the strongest party of the Republicans. The division has brought much violence, with more than 3,000 killed and many more injured since the early seventies. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) has been the militant wing of the Republicans; on the other side militants associated with the Unionists are usually called the paramilitaries.
For DUP leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to come together at a table to talk power sharing in a new government is necessarily historic. And if they can, so can others in conflict situations that have seemed impossible to resolve.
"I think the resolution of our conflict, the principles at the heart of it, are principles that can make a contribution to solving conflict anywhere," Republican leader John Hume, who won the 1998 Nobel Prize along with Unionist leader David Trimble told IPS earlier. It was these two leaders that initiated the process that is now moving forward, after plenty of hiccups along the way.
"At the end of the day all conflicts are about the same thing. Difference. Whether it is difference of race, difference of religion, or nationality. And since differences are an accident of birth so they should not be fought about, they should be respected. The second principle is institutions that respect difference: a proportional assembly and a proportionate government."
This is the only democratic way forward in a conflict situation, he said.
"When you have a simple majority system, that is only true democracy if you have a uniform society. But where you have diversity, where you have different people, true democracy is a system that includes representatives of all sections, and that's what we're working to here. When you have a divided people, you should create a democracy that includes both sets of people in the governmental situation."
Democracy itself is essential to a solution, David Trimble told IPS.
"It had to be the simple democratic principle, it was up to the people who lived in the disputed territory to decide what they wish to be a part of, but then as well as that there were arrangements to ensure, special arrangements indeed to ensure that there was full opportunity for people to be involved, to participate and to feel that they were not being excluded or discriminated against, and quite elaborate procedures went into that as well."
But this form of democracy can be only a temporary solution, he said.
"It isn't democracy as most people understand it, where you have a compulsory coalition of all the major parties, that is not by any means a normal arrangement. Necessary in a situation we are still in, and it will be necessary perhaps for some time to come. I'd like to think that in the not too distant future there would be sufficient confidence generated within society that we could move towards a more normal arrangement."
The ride since 1998 has not been easy. Failed power sharing arrangements mean that the Northern Assembly has been suspended four times since the last elections in 1998. The new coming together marks new hope, not certainty. The best way forward is not therefore the easiest.
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Albion Monitor April
1, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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