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The initial euphoria over the Northern Ireland peace agreement rapidly gave way in the British and Irish press to fears that it might fail. In Britain, only the Independent, recently purchased by the Irish CEO of H.J. Heinz Co., Tony O’Reilly, appeared to discount the possibility of failure from the start. A front-page headline last Saturday read, “Peace at last for Ulster,” and an editorial gushed, “[I]t is not naive to be optimistic about its prospects” and “we must all resist the temptation to see future violence described as a failure of the peace process,” although that temptation would surely be strong.
The conservative Daily Telegraph, always deeply suspicious of any dealings between Britain and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, criticized several aspects of the settlement and emphasized that it “does not in itself mean peace in Ulster’s time.” It added that Ulster’s unionist voters “should not, at least as yet, feel that they are against peace by rejecting yesterday’s agreement–or be stampeded into voting ‘Yes’ in a referendum.” “Please make it work,” begged the liberal Guardian in its front-page headline, saying in its editorial that while failure was a possibility, so also was success. “It is a time for gratitude, and even the odd private prayer,” it went on. “For this was a blessed Good Friday.” The Financial Times said, “[W]hat has been achieved is a great new opportunity, but it is only that. The people of Ireland, north and south, must make up their minds to take it.”
By Easter Sunday, the Sunday Telegraph was leading with the news that peace was already threatened by Sinn Fein’s refusal to press the IRA to hand over its weapons immediately. Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times, on the other hand, described divisions among the Protestant unionists as the main threat to peace. Most of the British Sunday newspapers highlighted an agreement between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Conservative predecessor John Major to campaign together for a “Yes” vote in next month’s referendum in Ulster. The Sunday Mirror published an “exclusive” front-page report that Blair was going to ask the queen to confer a knighthood on the chairman of the peace talks, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.
Surprisingly, the Sunday Telegraph’s editorial was hostile to President Clinton, who had elsewhere been garnering plaudits for his contribution to the peace settlement. It described his intervention as “merely opportunistic” and added: “In his intrusions into the peace process, President Clinton–a man who took no risks last week–has tried to represent Britain as if it were a colonial power, slowly withdrawing from a Third World ‘statelet.’ It is worth reminding him that Ulster is, and remains, part of the United Kingdom and, as such, is part of a developed democracy.”
By Monday, every British broadsheet was stressing the difficulties facing the peace settlement because of divisions within Sinn Fein and among the unionists, while the Guardian led its front page with a warning by Mitchell of increased terrorist violence at the time of the referendum. Continental newspapers, too, emphasized the problems. “The Irish peace remains to be built,” said the conservative Paris daily Le Figaro over its main front-page story. In an adjoining comment, it described the Ulster settlement as “typically English” in its pragmatism. “What continental jurist could have thought up a statute which reaffirms Ulster’s dependence on the crown without excluding its eventual reattachment to the Republic of Ireland?” it asked. On Tuesday, Le Monde carried an article by its Madrid correspondent about intense Spanish interest in the Ulster settlement as a possible key to solving the Basque terrorist problem in Spain. But El País of Madrid quoted Blair, spending Easter with his family in Córdoba, as saying there were no comparisons to be made between the two situations.
The Ulster agreement was greeted with even greater euphoria in the Irish press than in its British counterpart. The Cork Examiner hailed it as the achievement of “lasting peace,” and the Irish Times compared John Hume, the Ulster Social Democratic Party leader who played the key role in launching the peace negotiations, to “Moses entering the Promised Land”–though, as the Irish historian and politician Conor Cruise O’Brien pointed out in an op-ed article in the Times of London on Monday, Moses never actually entered the Promised Land.
But O’Brien, who has always been opposed to making deals with Sinn Fein, noted that there was now less open emphasis in Ireland on peace than on a breakthrough for Irish nationalism, and he added that an article in the Sunday Business Post–the Dublin newspaper most sympathetic to Sinn Fein–had rather given the game away with an article that said, “[T]he IRA, which is likely to maintain its ceasefire for several months, will almost certainly resist any attempt to accede to unionist demands for actual decommissioning of weapons by early summer.” O’Brien predicted that Sinn Fein and the IRA would continue to operate the “peace process” as “a fertile and rewarding field for further blackmail” and that the peace proposals “may well be defeated” by unionist voters in the referendum.