Pledging “to overcome the legacy of history,” Great Britain and Ireland on Wednesday jointly proposed an audacious - and risky - framework for peace between Protestants and Catholics divided by religious discord, discrimination and violence in Northern Ireland.
“What we plan is an end to the uncertainty, instability and internal division which has bedeviled Northern Ireland,” said British Prime Minister John Major. “We seek to help peace, but only the people of Northern Ireland can deliver it.”
His remarks came after a meeting with Irish Prime Minister John Bruton outside Belfast and their formal presentation of a proposal by the two governments intended to provide the basis for settlement of a centuries-old dispute between rival communities that has claimed more than 3,000 lives in terrorist violence over the past 25 years alone.
“The proposals will challenge the two traditions on this island, but will do so in an even-handed way. Neither tradition need fear its contents,” Bruton said. “It is a framework for discussion and not a blueprint to be imposed over the heads of anyone.”
British commentators called the proposals the most promising in a 25-year cycle of bloodshed but warned that their success was hostage to reaction by the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland and by terrorist hotheads on both sides.
The framework, intended as a basis for continuing negotiation, envisions novel cross-border decision-making between elected representatives of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic from which it was partitioned on Irish independence 70 years ago.
Britain, for its part, would restore to the province a Parliament suspended in 1972 amid escalating terrorist violence both in the province and in England by the Irish Republican Army.
In changing times, a cease-fire declared by the IRA five months ago and later seconded by Protestant terrorists lent impetus to 14 months of talks between two governments that have long both asserted their right to rule the province called Ulster.
Protestants, most of whom consider themselves British and are called Unionists, are a 2-1 majority among the 1.6 million people in Northern Ireland.
Political parties representing them in the British Parliament were as hostile to the new proposals Wednesday as they had been in the anxious anticipation of their publication. “An eviction notice!” snapped one Unionist member of the British parliament.
Not so, said Major on Wednesday after presenting a peace proposal he said said was urgently needed by Britain, Ireland, and Northern Ireland alike “to remove the causes of conflict, to overcome the legacy of history, and to heal the divisions which have resulted.”