“Hand of history touches Ulster” was the Guardian of London’s main headline Friday, echoing a remark by British Prime Minister Tony Blair that “the hand of history is at last lifting the burden of terror and violence and shaping the future of the people of Northern Ireland.” Newspapers on both sides of the Irish Sea agreed that the meeting in Belfast Thursday of the first ever all-inclusive Northern Irish government was a momentous event. They called it Devolution Day, and they labeled it historic. Among mainstream newspapers, only the Daily Telegraph of London, which has always been skeptical about the peace process, led with the headline “Blair: Extremists could still wreck new Ulster dawn.” The Guardian noted in its lead story that the signs that things have changed “for ever” with the transfer of power from London to the executive in Belfast came in small ways. “An anti-abortion group picketed Parliament Buildings, evidence that politics were coming home at last,” it said.
The Times of London said in an editorial that the peace process would not have been possible “without an extraordinary transformation of Irish politics, economics, society and culture” during the past two decades. Cursed by emigration since the potato famine of the 1840s, “Ireland ached to present itself as Europe’s ‘victim,’ with the English invariably cast as the villain of the piece. The complete story was never this simple: but the image had adhesive quality.” But “[o]ver 20 years both the underlying facts and popular perception have altered dramatically” through a process of “economic modernisation, social liberalism, reconciliation with the north, and an outreach to the wider world,” the paper said. “Brendan Behan wrote with confidence five decades ago that ‘other people have a nationality, the Irish have a psychosis.’ Mr Behan has proved a better playwright than a political prophet.”
A much-used photograph in the British press was of Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams with a camera to his eye, snapping the media at the opening ceremony for the new executive. The tabloid Daily Mirror surrounded this with the smiling faces of the leading participants in the peace settlement under the headline “Smile! We’ve Just Made History.” For once, Britain’s biggest-selling tabloid, Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, cleared its front page of celebrity scandal to make way for a huge headline: “Peace: Let’s All Pray It Lasts.” “In one way or another, the British and the Irish have been at war for centuries,” the paper said in a front-page editorial. “Until yesterday. Yesterday, peace was given a chance.”
Writing in the Irish Times of Dublin Friday, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said: “In Ireland, North and South, we can now say with certainty, it is the people who are sovereign. We have, all of us, nationalists, unionists, republicans and loyalists, gained from this certainty.” Praising the contributions of “some extraordinary people, including President Bill Clinton and Senator George Mitchell,” Ahern said that if anybody tried “to wreck the agreement through violence, we will confront them. … [A]s we have shown in recent weeks and months, we can overcome all of the obstacles to achieving a lasting peace.” The prime minister was pictured on the paper’s front page signing away Ireland’s territorial claims to the north.
The Irish Independent fronted a photograph of Queen Elizabeth II and Irish President Mary McAleese celebrating Devolution Day with a private lunch at Buckingham Palace. It said plans were afoot for the queen to visit Dublin early next year to cement the new relationship between Britain and Ireland. This will be the first ever visit to the republic by a British monarch. The paper also quoted the Irish Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney welcoming the agreement with a quotation from the epic Anglo-Saxon poem “Beowulf”: “A light appeared and the whole place became brightened the way the sky does when heaven’s candle is shining brightly.”
In Northern Ireland, the Protestant Belfast Telegraph said in an editorial that it would be hard to exaggerate the significance of this day, which will be included among the greatest events of Irish history. It stressed the importance of the contributions “of American governments–and President Clinton in particular–repaying their debt to millions of Irish immigrants by an unremitting commitment to the peace process.” The Irish News, a Roman Catholic paper based in Belfast, led with the Irish Republican Army’s appointment of a go-between to discuss arms decommissioning with an independent body headed by Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain. The IRA’s statement did not name its representative, made no promise to give up its weapons, and expressed concern at Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble’s insistence on next February as the deadline for disarmament to begin. According to the Times of London, the mediator is widely thought to be Padraig Wilson, a former head of IRA inmates in the Maze prison in Belfast. The Times said that, according to one new security assessment, the IRA possesses at least 1,000 rifles, 500 handguns, 50 heavy machine guns, and 2,600 kilograms of Semtex high explosive.
On the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle, Le Monde of Paris led Friday with divisions in the European camp over its negotiating stance toward the United States. It said five members of the European Union–France, Britain, Italy, Denmark, and Belgium–have accused the European Commission of going beyond its mandate by proposing a compromise that would allow discussion of genetically modified foods. This is something to which France in particular is vehemently opposed.
The Guardian of London’s reporter John Vidal infiltrated one of the closed working party meetings of the WTO because it issued him with the wrong accreditation–a blue delegate’s pass instead of a green press badge. He gives an amusing front-page account of the opening of a debate in the “Singapore Group” on whether the WTO should include investments and competition in the next round of negotiations. “In theory the Guardian is now an official delegate to the talks, can deliver speeches, introduce policies, and make political trade-offs,” he explains. The issue pits the rich countries against the poor ones, and no progress is made. “The pace, after 40 minutes, is telling,” he writes. “Several countries are visibly suffering. The Congo Democratic Republic delegates are pretending to be asleep. Ireland is reclining alarmingly. The only sign of life is a Latin American delegation where the minister could well be in love with his adviser. Her eyes flash. They lean together and cannot stop whispering.”