Northern Ireland undergoes remarkable political shifts

Sunday, December 12, 2004

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Belfast used to be a place where you dreaded walking past an abandoned car on a lonely street for fear it might blow up.

These days, Belfast is a bustling city of bag-laden shoppers, well-heeled diners and nightclubbers shouting for taxis.

The backdrop to this decade-long emergence from violence in the contested British province is an on-and-off peace process that has just gone through an extraordinary string of shifts and turns, culminating in a shotgun marriage of the province's two most implacable foes.

In elections 13 months ago, the voters were disenchanted with the two moderate and long-dominant parties, and the fringes gained.

The result is that the biggest parties now are Sinn Fein, political arm of the Irish Republican Army that long killed and bombed in hopes of uniting Ireland, and the Democratic Unionists of Ian Paisley, the preacher whose rhetoric has long defined militant Protestant politics.

But now that the two parties find themselves in the hot seat of this province, they are doing the unthinkable -- contemplating a coalition and sounding ready to make historic shifts in policy.

Paisley has offered conditional pledges to work with Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein party and the government of the neighboring Republic of Ireland. Sinn Fein has offered its own conditional promises to deliver speedy IRA disarmament and to recognize the legitimacy of Northern Ireland's police force.

Crucially, the vast majority of Northern Ireland citizens no longer see power-sharing as the only way to avoid a return to the violence that has claimed 3,600 lives since 1969.

The radicalized 1960s generation that formed the modern IRA is buying vacation homes and heading for retirement.

Paul Bew, professor of Irish politics at Queen's University of Belfast, said the IRA, heavily dependent on Irish-American support, is caught in "the 9/11 effect."

"There's no romanticized support for car-bombers anymore," he said.

"The IRA campaign is done. It isn't coming back," he said. "Every year that passes since the cease-fire, the more the IRA guys settle into their sofas or just drift away."

Meanwhile, people have already seen power-sharing flop repeatedly and wonder whether the latest hard-line combination on offer could do any better. An administration led by moderate Protestants and Catholics struggled through a saga of high-wire breakdowns from 1999 to 2002.

By contrast, during the past two years of low-profile government run by lawmakers imported from England, Scotland and Wales, the province has had record low unemployment and almost no violence.

"The feeling on the street now is: 'No deal -- so what? Why should I give a toss about what these guys get up to?' It's very evident in the past year how people have disengaged big-time," said Wilson.

The big question is whether Paisley would ever share a platform with Sinn Fein leaders. He won't even talk to them or shake their hands and last week -- with negotiations still in full swing -- he called the IRA "bloodthirsty monsters."

The most likely answer lies in the two sides' shared interest in winning large British subsidies for their arm's-length partnership. With that money they could build a house with many walls, running their own departments with minimal discussion.

Walls work for Belfast.

More than 20 tall "peace lines" of brick and iron have kept the city's warring neighborhoods apart for a generation. Many have gone up during the past decade of peacemaking. Not one has been torn down.

Shawn Pogatchnik, based in Belfast and Dublin, has covered Northern Ireland for The Associated Press since 1991.

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