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Northern Ireland pact marked on anniversary but domestic stalemate, Brexit loom large

From CBC - April 10, 2018

The leaders who brokered a peace deal for Northern Ireland in 1998 marked its 20th anniversary on Tuesday by warning that a hardening political divide and Britain's exit from the EU were creating new dangers for the region.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton and ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair joined Irish and Northern Irish politicians in Belfast to mark the breakthrough on April 10, 1998, that called an end to 30 years of sectarian violence in which some 3,600 people died.

But the collapse early last year of the power-sharing administration at the heart of that deal meant there was no devolved government to greet them and little sign of the province's Irish nationalists and pro-British unionists resolving the differences that have again divided them.

"We have to be very, very careful," said former U.S. senator George Mitchell, who chaired the talks that led to the agreement, when asked by Irish state broadcaster RTE if there was a danger of a return to violence. "Nothing in life is guaranteed."

Northern Ireland was quickly transformed by the deal, with the Irish Republican Army, responsible for most of the killings, agreeing to give up its weapons and the British army dismantling its armed checkpoints and withdrawing.

But while the outbreaks of violence have all but ended, the region's politics has become more polarised,leading in January 2017 to the collapse of devolved power sharing for the first time in a decade.

Do not go back, Clinton urges

The supporter base of Northern Ireland's liberal parties has shrunk, allowing the combined vote of the more divisive Democratic Unionist and Sinn Fein to grow from around 34 per cent in 1998 to 56 per cent at the last election in 2017. In recent months, the rhetoric from both sides has hardened.

"Compromise has to become a good thing, not a dirty word and voters have to stop punishing people who make those compromises and start rewarding them," said Clinton, whose role in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is celebrated as one of the key legacies of his presidency.

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