A Giant Step for Northern Ireland
Chaired by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, the talks were advanced by a high-profile set of mediators, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, and President Bill Clinton. Two participating groups, the Protestant Ulster Democratic Party and Sinn Fein, were temporarily suspended from the talks because of continued paramilitary activities.
The accord called for Protestants to share political power with the minority Catholics, and gave the Republic of Ireland a voice in Northern Irish affairs. In turn, Catholics were to suspend the goal of a united Ireland —a territorial claim that was the raison d'être of the IRA and was written into the Irish Republic's constitution— unless the largely Protestant North voted in favor of such an arrangement, an unlikely occurrence.
The resounding commitment to the settlement was demonstrated in a dual referendum on May 22: the North approved the accord by a vote of 71% to 29%, and in the Irish Republic 94% favored it. But the deaths of three Catholic boys in July 1998 during the traditional Protestant marches through Catholic neighborhoods was an appalling reminder of the fragility of peace. In October, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to John Hume and David Trimble, leaders of the largest Catholic and Protestant political parties, an incentive for all sides to ensure that this time the peace would last.
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