In a supposedly impatient age, progress toward something like peace in Northern Ireland has come at glacial speed. It took 30 years, over 3,000 deaths, and arm-twisting by any number of prime ministers, presidents and leading politicians to reach the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. At the time, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, then new to office, said he felt that “the burden of history can at long last start to be lifted from our shoulders.” Nearly a decade later, the burden is still there—but finally it actually lightened a bit. Earlier today, the two leaders of the province’s largest parties, the once-implacable foes Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, agreed finally to share power. Not now, but perhaps soon—which in this contentious land counts as a major step forward.
"We've all come a very long way in the process of peace making and national reconciliation,” said Adams, the republican leader of Sinn Fein. “We are very conscious of the many people who have suffered. We owe it to them to build the best future possible.” Paisley, the Democratic Unionist preacher-leader known as “Dr. No” for his stubbornness, seemed to agree: “We must not allow our justified loathing for the horrors and tragedies of the past to become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future for our children.”
Paisley and Adams agreed to start sharing power on May 8. Between now and then, much could go wrong, and in Northern Ireland it often does. But the mere fact that Adams and Paisley sat down at the same table together and smiled for the cameras when they announced their agreement was deemed historic. The symbolism alone gave rise to the hope that the home-rule provisions of the 1998 agreement could finally be fully implemented, complete with executive powers shared by unionists and republicans. In order to lay the groundwork for the new government, First Minister-to-be Paisley, who turns 81 on April 6, said that prior to the May deadline he would be meeting with the Sinn Fein politician expected to be deputy first minister, Martin McGuiness, who is described in the British press as a former commander of the militant Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Blair hailed the agreement. “This is a very important day for the people of Northern Ireland, but also for the people and the history of these islands, he said. “In a sense, everything we have done over the last 10 years has been a preparation for this moment.” It was a momentous day for Blair personally as he prepares to leave office this summer. He made Northern Ireland a signature issue when he came to power in 1997. His stewardship of the Northern Ireland peace process—in partnership with his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, and Bill Clinton when he was U.S. president—is one of the unalloyed successes of his premiership.
The deal between the firebrand Paisley and the silky politico Adams will be front-page news across the British Isles on Tuesday. But the real story of the state of Northern Ireland is often better told in the business section. The economy has fared even better than the overall British economy in recent years, with employment and growth slightly ahead of the “mainland,” as the people of Ulster call the rest of the United Kingdom. It’s a far cry from the darkest of the old days; in the 1980s, unemployment rose to nearly 30 percent. Similar contrasts can be seen in statistics on sectarian violence. In 1972, the bloodiest year of the Irish “Troubles,” police attributed 470 deaths to sectarian violence. Last year there were half a dozen. Even as their politicians have been wrangling and grabbing the headlines, the people of Northern Ireland had already moved on.