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Sunday, 21 November, 1999, 11:05 GMT
A promising week in Belfast
Time to share power again at Stormont?

A carefully agreed sequence of events over the past week has brought Northern Ireland to within striking distance of permanent peace. Our Ireland correspondent, David Eades, has been watching the week unfold.

I met a 'sticky' the other day. I'd never met one before, in fact I'd never heard of one. A sticky is a republican in Northern Ireland, but not just any old republican, it's someone committed to the ideals of the old official IRA.

And they're called 'stickies' not for any wonderfully esoteric reason, just because they used to wear sticky badges on their jacket lapels.

The Search for Peace
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George Mitchell Profile
Link to Sinn Fein
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Now the 'stickies' today are treated with disdain by many hardened modern-day republicans. Their big mistake is they were too soft when times were hard.

They eschewed violence at a time the Provisional IRA pushed it for all it was worth, during the era of civil rights marches in the seventies and onwards. And the end result was not quite extinction but severe depletion of support and a reputation as failed has-beens.

The 'sticky' I met had moved on since his days as a politician and leading figure in his community. Once he had stood face to face with Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein's leader today, and argued that it was wrong to fight one's way to equal rights, let alone a united Ireland.

Path to power
Nov 27: Unionist council meets
Nov 29: Assembly meets
Nov 30: Westminster discusses devolution
Dec 2: Power devolved
Now, as he strolls with his middle-aged gait, dressed in tweed jacket and comfy slacks, he recounts to me with some bitterness how he had won the argument but lost the battle for the hearts and minds of his constituency, a constituency in West Belfast of downtrodden, depressed and repressed Catholics ready to strike out for their rights.

Painful road to peace

The pain today for the 'sticky' is in a way more acute than it's been for a long time because after all these years a version of the 'sticky's' own vision of equality and inclusivity in Northern Ireland is finally within the republican and nationalist community's grasp.

It's taken 3,000 deaths to get there but the people who orchestrated so much of that violence, or who refused to condemn it at least, are about to reap the benefits. That's not to say that the 'stickies' were pacifists but few were ready to go to the lengths their successors did.

Nobody weeps for the 'sticky' though. As I hunted down an IRA wall painting the other day, my cameraman asked a young girl if she knew where the particular mural was that we were looking for.

In giving us the directions, she guided us past what she called 'the stickies' place', said with a grinning knowledge, on this republican estate, that whatever they'd done, whatever they still do, they were still seen as a bit of a joke.

My 'sticky' honestly believed the violence of the last 30 years in Northern Ireland had been completely unnecessary. Too many of his community though would not agree and that is why peace this time may actually work.

History in the making

The fight has been long and it has been hard. Huge inequalities with the unionists, the Protestants, have been redressed or are being redressed under the terms of the Good Friday agreement.

I've been in Northern Ireland for six months now and this week, I think, I've just experienced history in the making
The Provos, as they're known, have bombed their way to the negotiating table and probably it has worked - provided that is they now give up for good. I've been in Northern Ireland for six months now and this week, I think, I've just experienced history in the making.

Now I may be wrong. There are many people far more seasoned than me who are less impressed by recent developments here. I'm still new enough to fall for every peak and every trough in the peace process.

It's a helter-skelter ride as the parties to the Good Friday agreement seek a way of putting their plan for peace and democracy back on track.

But here we are, in the midst of a whirlwind of activity, of ground-breaking statements - from republicans regretting the violence of the past, seeking to work with not against their mortal enemy, the unionists of Northern Ireland, preparing to serve in a Northern Ireland government which is a part of the United Kingdom they are so desperate to break away from; and from unionists ready to put the past behind them - the past which has seen so many killed in paramilitary atrocities.

The IRA of all people is ready to enter into discussions about decommissioning its formidable arsenal of guns, semtex, rocket launchers. So too are the main paramilitaries on the other side, the so-called loyalists, fighting in the name of the Crown.

The placid American

And it's a placid American of pensionable age who seems to have made all this possible - George Mitchell. He may have the demeanour of an ageing Clark Kent but he's got the diplomatic skills of a superman.

By the end of next week we shall know if the unionists are finally prepared to work in government with Catholics and nationalists
In the most precisely planned sequence of events, he may have laid the groundwork for devolved government and weapons decommissioning to visit themselves on Northern Ireland.

My 'sticky' still wonders if the republican mood is right for an end to the reliance on guns. He still thinks fear of the other side taking advantage again is possibly too much for this to work. For many unionists, the feeling is mutual.

By the end of next week we shall know if the unionists are finally prepared to work in government with Catholics and nationalists. It's all so incredibly close. The ups and downs will go on throughout next week but then, if they set up a devolved government for this province, things will change.

If the IRA gives up guns after that, they will change probably for ever. It's not to say that everyone is finally going to start loving one another but, as a colleague of mine put it, Northern Ireland will be able to move from an era of constant paramilitary violence to the relative bliss of constant political crisis.

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See also:
20 Nov 99 |  Northern Ireland
Unionists face historic choice
18 Nov 99 |  Northern Ireland
Mitchell statement in full
20 Nov 99 |  Northern Ireland
Tireless campaigner for peace

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