BELFAST (Reuters)–Northern Ireland’s political leaders and the British and Irish governmen’s overcame last-minute hitches on Friday and agreed on a long-awaited peace deal.
The deal–preserving Northern Ireland’s links with Britain while building closer ties with Ireland–marks the biggest upheaval in the province’s political arrangemen’s since the island of Ireland was partitioned in 1921.
Changes are proposed in Ireland’s constitution and British constitutional law to enshrine the principle that the people of Northern Ireland will decide their future democratically.
The agreement also creates new institutions–including a Northern Ireland Assembly a North/South Council.
"I am pleased to announce that the two governmen’s and the political parties of Northern Ireland have reached agreement,” former US senator George Mitchell told a final session of the marathon talks.
"I have been in politics for 30 years and never have I felt this sense of gratification and responsibility and gratitude that I feel today,” said Mitchell–who has been chairman of the talks.
"I believe today that courage has triumphed,” said British Prime Minister Tony Blair–who played a crucial role in brokering the deal along with his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern.
"I said when I arrived here on Wednesday night that I felt the hand of history upon us. Today I hope that the burden of history can at long last start to be lifted from our shoulders.”
Ahern hailed the agreement–reached 17 hours after the passing of an April 9 deadline–as "A new beginning for all of us–in Northern Ireland–the island of Ireland and across these islands.”
"It’s a day we should treasure and a day when agreement and accommodation have taken up the place of difference and division,” he said.
Ahern had to take time off from the talks this week to attend his mother’s funeral and said she would be happy with the outcome of the negotiations.
"I’m sure my mother would be pleased that at least we made some progress,” he said.
US President Bill Clinton intervened on Friday by telephone and spoke with the main pro-British Unionist leader David Trimble–Gerry Adams–leader of the IRA guerrillas’ Sinn Fein political allies–and with Ahern and Irish nationalist leader John Hume.
Clinton intervened after Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party raised concerns about arrangemen’s over the handover of guerrilla weapons and assurances that members of a future Northern Ireland assembly would have no links with extremists.
Mitchell told the final plenary round at Stormont Castle: "The agreement proposes changes in the Irish Constitution and in British constitutional law to enshrine the principle that it is the people of Northern Ireland who will decide–democratically–their own future.
"The agreement creates new institutions: a Northern Ireland Assembly–to restore to the people the fundamental democratic right to govern themselves; and a North/South Council–to encourage cooperation and joint action for mutual benefit.
"It deals fairly with such sensitive issues as prisoners–policing–decommissioning and the importance of achieving equality of treatment for the whole community.
"This agreement is good for the people of Ireland–North and South.”
"Britain’s Queen Elizabeth was reported to be “delighted” and Blair’s predecessor John Major said: “This is the best beacon of hope we’ve had for a very long time.”
Full details of the accord were due to be sent to every household in the province ahead of a referendum next month. But it will be challenged by hardline Protestant Unionist parties and by guerrilla splinter groups on both sides who have never joined the peace talks.
Trimble emerged to tell reporters that "the role of the Union (with Britain) is stronger than it was we sat down" and challenged Sinn Fein to end its "dirty–squalid little terrorist war."
There was no immediate comment from Adams–who was accused by Trimble of refusing to accept one of the main planks of the agreement–that the status of Northern Ireland could only be changed with the consent of its people.
The feuding parties spent the night and most of the day wrestling with the final draft of the peace accord–aimed at ending three decades of guerrilla violence that has claimed more than 3,000 lives.
The peace settlement will be put to a parallel referendums in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic on May 22–and Clinton is likely to visit the province shortly before the voting.