The British and Irish governments Tuesday approved a plan setting up a framework for negotiations in Northern Ireland that they hope will lead to lasting peace and appealed to the people of this troubled province to keep an open mind about the proposals, which they will present here today.
Prime Ministers John Major of Britain and John Bruton of Ireland directed their remarks largely to the political leaders of Northern Ireland’s Protestant majority, which already has angrily denounced the joint Anglo-Irish plan for a new Northern Ireland as a betrayal.
“The objective that I have … is to ensure that what has been thus far a cease-fire is able to be turned into a permanent peace,” Major told the House of Commons in London.
The proposal reportedly would allow unprecedented involvement by the Republic of Ireland in the governmental affairs of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. It would achieve this by creating “cross-border” institutions - joint agencies representing Ireland and Northern Ireland - to help manage problems of mutual interest, such as tourism and the environment. The “joint framework” is expected to include a pledge from the Irish Republic to amend its constitutional claim to Northern Ireland.
Bruton, speaking to his Parliament in Dublin, stressed that the proposal is not cast in concrete. It is designed to be debated and negotiated, he said, “to facilitate, not preempt dialogue.” It ultimately will be submitted to a referendum in Northern Ireland.
Significantly, the major Protestant leaders did not, as feared, say they would boycott the multi-party talks that the two governments hope will follow today’s historic meeting and presentation. Officials on both sides were greatly relieved, since a pullout by the elected Protestant leadership here could destroy the entire peace process and possibly prompt a renewal of the sectarian strife that has claimed more than 3,000 lives since 1969.
There was great excitement here Tuesday as citizens from taxi drivers to pub crawlers awaited the summit and publication of the long-awaited plan.
The leadership of the Protestant majority sees the reported and leaked details of the plan as a sellout to the Catholic minority here and the beginning of their nightmare vision of reunification of the six counties of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic to the south - and, ultimately, absorption of their culture into Catholic Ireland.
“My worst fears are realized,” declared the Rev. Ian Paisley, the longtime militant leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. Northern Ireland, he predicted after meeting with Major, will be governed jointly by Dublin and London.
He was joined in his concern by James Molyneaux, head of the other main Protestant political party here, the Ulster Unionists. “The community in Northern Ireland may … be destined to have to withstand yet another 10 years of uncertainty and inevitable violence,” said the usually restrained Molyneaux.
Both men, however, outlined their own counterproposals - which do not envision Irish participation - instead of pulling out of the peace process, offering some hope that they were at least ready to talk.