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Peace in Ireland:
Near at Last?

[ Feature 1 Photo]


The vote in Ireland has been counted — and peace may win. Senator George Mitchell and Irish observers tell why they have cautious hope. By Judy Ball

 Fresh Start

 Marathon With a Photo Finish


 Irish Observers

 Memories of Only the ‘Troubles’

 Look to the Future

 New Institutions on the Irish Landscape (sidebar)

IT HAD BEEN A TYPICAL DAY FOR former Senator George J. Mitchell: meetings with clients, a long business luncheon, back-to-back telephone calls, an after-dinner flight from New York to Florida for a board meeting the following day before flying to Europe. But he had promised St. Anthony Messenger an interview about his hopes for peace in Northern Ireland and about the role he had played as chairman of the peace talks that led to an agreement that had been announced in Belfast weeks before. By 10:45 that night he was ready to talk.

The man who had brought entrenched foes to the same table and managed to keep them talking (though not always directly to one another) spoke in hopeful, but cautious tones. "The Agreement only represents an opportunity to realize peace as well as stability and reconciliation," he said carefully.

But it is an opportunity, he is convinced, that must be seized. "In any divided community or diverse society there has to be some accommodation of other points of view, other cultures. The important thing is that, whatever may have been the case in the past, there is no justification for the use or threat of violence to resolve political problems now. There is a democratic alternative that is available and can work if people will set their minds to it."

In addition to Senator Mitchell, St. Anthony Messenger talked with several other sources, some observers, some veterans, of the bloody civil war in Northern Ireland. All are eager to see the newest agreement on the Irish landscape thrive.

One of them, Redemptorist Father Gerry Moloney, speaking from his native Dublin, called the emphatic endorsement of the peace agreement by Ireland’s voters on May 22 "the most historic moment in history" he could remember. Franciscan Father Liam McCarthy, O.F.M., and David McLarnon, a Franciscan seminarian, both now stationed in Rome, believe the land they call home is on the brink of a new moment in history.

Still, nobody really believes that perfect peace has fully and finally come to Northern Ireland. That includes the 71 percent of voters there and the 94 percent in the Irish Republic who cast their ballots last May for the peace agreement which seeks to end the sectarian conflict that has wracked the northern counties for three decades

Fresh Start

Cautiously hopeful sentiments—"Only a beginning," "A critical first step," "The best way to get to peace," "A compromise that offers something for everybody"—were expressed by the more than one million ordinary voters throughout the island, north and south, who cast "yes" votes in favor of the historic accord. The "Agreement," as it is officially called, seeks to resolve differences on political issues by "exclusively democratic and peaceful means" and opposes "any use or threat of force" for any political purpose.

For the first time in decades, the Agreement offers the hope that the majority Protestant community and the minority Catholic community in Northern Ireland can live side by side, working out their disagreements without resorting to the bullet and the bomb. Signatories to the Agreement include the governments of Ireland and Great Britain.

In addition are eight of the 10 political parties in Northern Ireland, representing all of the Catholic parties, the centrists and most of the Protestant parties. Some of them were admitted to the talks only after paramilitary forces they represented adopted cease-fires; two groups were temporarily suspended from the talks when evidence pointed to involvement in sectarian killings by some of their armed followers.

The framework for power-sharing, most believe, offers something for everyone, beginning with the promise of peace for all. Minority Catholics gain more political power in the six counties of the mostly Protestant North. The overwhelmingly Catholic Irish Republic, made up of the remaining 26 counties, gets more influence in Northern affairs.

The Protestants gain the assurance that a united Ireland free of British control and run from Dublin can only happen with the approval of the majority in the North. New institutions are created—a democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly, a North-South Ministerial Council and a British-Irish Council—all designed to empower Protestants and Catholics to make policy jointly.

This is no mean feat in the six counties that make up Northern Ireland, a province of Great Britain, where hopelessness and hate have spawned almost 30 years of bloody civil conflict. "The Troubles," as they have come to be known, began in the late 1960’s with civil-rights marches by the Catholic minority seeking to end discrimination in such areas as employment and housing. The same period brought the rise of paramilitary groups, including the predominantly Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Protestant Ulster Defense Association.

One of the most notorious incidents occurred on what is now called Bloody Sunday—January 30, 1972. As thousands of Catholic demonstrators gathered in Derry to protest mass arrests and the British policy of internment without trial, 13 unarmed civilians were shot dead by British army troops. Still another died later. (Now, more than 26 years later, the British government is conducting an official inquiry into the incident that became a watershed event.)

As time went on, Northern Ireland took on a Wild West tone. Violence escalated while sectarian political killings, followed by the threat and use of retaliation, increased. Many of the ensuing civil war’s more than 3,200 victims were innocent bystanders of random violence in the form of bombs and shootings.

For many students of Irish history, the problems go back several hundred years further to 1611 and the Plantation of Ulster. Catholics were driven from their lands in the northeastern part of Ireland and replaced by outsiders from various parts of the British Isles. The newcomers were principally Presbyterians from England and Scotland who came to swell the numbers of Protestant residents already there and assure that the six counties would be loyal to the British Crown. (Hence comes the term Loyalist to describe the majority of Northern Ireland Protestants. They are also called Unionists because they wish to remain united with the British government.)

Ireland’s troubled history is acknowledged in the new Agreement reached by participants in the multiparty negotiations. "The tragedies of the past," the Agreement states, "have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. But we can best honor them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all."

Marathon With a Photo Finish

Getting to the Agreement was difficult and delicate. The eight political parties (two others refused to participate) and two governments represented at the peace table in Belfast spent 22 months at the task. The tension was so high, the animosity so great that, commonly, the representatives of the various parties were not in the same room at the same time.

One negotiator from a small party reportedly had permission—and seized the opportunity—to speak for seven hours without interruption. After almost two years of negotiations, everything that needed to be said had been said. But even then it took an arbitrary deadline — spurred by rumors of possible assassination of participants—to prod the parties at the table to affirm the Agreement.

The talks ended in dramatic fashion with a round-the-clock, 17-hour photo finish. Only then did the world learn that the protracted peace talks had borne fruit in the form of a 68-page settlement document. It had taken some 11th-hour emergency political surgery by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and strategic interventions by Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern (who had buried his mother one day before) to help get to the finish line.

It fell to the chairman of the peace talks to announce the Agreement at the end of the marathon negotiating session. An exhausted but eloquent Senator Mitchell declared, "It doesn’t take courage to shoot a policeman in the back of the head, or to murder an unarmed taxi driver. What takes courage is to compete in the arena of democracy as these men and women are tonight."


The former senator from Maine, who made more than 100 transatlantic flights between his home in the United States and Belfast during the protracted negotiations, began each day in Belfast the same way: An aide would brief him at breakfast about the shootings, firebombings and mortar attacks that had taken place overnight. "The overlay of violence" sickened him, but it also motivated him to press on.

Negotiators at the peace talks all pledged “to take the gun out of Irish politics.”

The so-called Mitchell Principles, which declared the need "to take the gun out of Irish politics," were drawn up. Political parties could be admitted to the talks only after declaring their "absolute commitment" to the principles.

Senator Mitchell, who turns 65 in August, has been lauded for his diplomacy, patience, firmness, prudence, fairness and remarkable ability to find common ground where none would seem to exist. Many think him a strong candidate for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. There is even talk of knighthood for this son of Mary Saad, a Lebanese immigrant mother, a textile worker, and George Mitchell, a janitor father who was himself the orphan son of Irish immigrants. It is from his father that the former Democratic majority leader in the U.S. Senate learned the values that, he believes, helped him address the challenges at the negotiating table.

Mitchell is fond of saying that his 14 years in the Senate, particularly those in the leadership position (1988-94), prepared him well for the Northern Ireland peace negotiations. "The 16-hour filibusters" and "11-hour statements" he had to endure in the Senate were played out again in the Belfast negotiations. In addition, he often was required to relay messages from people in the same room who refused to talk to one another directly—for example, Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, and David Trimble of the Ulster Democratic Party.

feature photo“Ordinary people are finally getting a chance to prove they want a just and lasting peace.”

— Sen. George Mitchell

All of which is proof that "the Lord works in mysterious ways," quips Mitchell, who was an altar boy at a Maronite Catholic church in his native Waterville, Maine. He still can speak some Arabic. (For that reason, and his proven diplomatic skills in Ireland, his name has been mentioned as a possible negotiator in the Middle East.)

But it was his own father, who could neither read nor write, who taught his son "the dignity and worth in every human being. He also taught me that people will respond to you in the same way you treat them," Senator Mitchell tells me.

When he found himself at the peace table "in a situation where people had this mindset of distrust and acrimony," he sought to establish an atmosphere "where people could have reasonable and civil discussions, treat each other with respect, try to understand the feelings and history of the other side of the community. With God’s help and a lot of luck, we were able to get an agreement."

Not that there weren’t many difficult moments and times of little progress during the negotiations. Often, "we managed to find very few areas of agreement, but I never felt it was completely hopeless," he continues. "I always felt the people of Northern Ireland in particular wanted their political leaders to solve their problems through dialogue and democratic alternatives to violence as a way to achieve political objectives. I sensed this is what the people wanted." Still, he noted in a radio interview, "some of the most important participants could not even bring themselves to shake hands after the Agreement had been signed."

Still, the strength of the Agreement, believes Senator Mitchell, who holds a law degree from Georgetown University, is in its fairness: tolerance, mutual respect and equality of treatment for all, cross-border cooperation, the enhancement of the concept of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom until a majority of its citizens declare otherwise. "This Agreement is good for all the people, North and South. Ordinary people there are finally getting a chance to prove that they want a just and lasting peace."

Irish Observers

And a just and lasting peace is precisely what all the people of the island are getting—God willing—says 36-year-old Father Gerry Moloney. As editor of Reality, a Redemptorist family magazine with a circulation of 22,000 throughout Ireland, he is cautious about how things will work out in the long term. But he expressed appreciation for the peace agreement’s "checks and balances that assure the interests and rights of both communities," Catholic and Protestant, and the new institutions being created that call for cooperation and power-sharing.

Furthermore, he finds great significance in the willingness of the Irish in the Republic to vote in favor of removing language from their Constitution that makes a territorial claim on Northern Ireland. For many, Father Moloney believes, this claim is something many have held dear, but they elected to sacrifice "in the interest of peace."

Eradicating sectarian hatred is the real challenge, says Father Gerry Moloney

Photo Courtesy of Redemptorist Publications

Still, he would like to see more change, beginning with an unequivocal acknowledgment from Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein "that the war is over, that there is no more going back to the bomb." He believes this would change the scene dramatically, and help the Protestant Unionists in the North see that working together and power-sharing can be realized.

During his nine years of ministry in Belfast (1984-93), Dublin-born Father Liam McCarthy, O.F.M., experienced in small but unmistakable ways the good that can occur when people of differing views and perspectives work together. Stationed at a friary located near the city’s docks, Father Liam was part of a Franciscan community of reconciliation devoted to "building bridges of friendship, hospitality and kindness" as an antidote to rampant "hatred, fear and violence."

Working alongside Anglican Franciscans as well as Poor Clares and Secular Franciscans, Father Liam saw small miracles being worked "on both sides of the divide through prayer, outreach and an effort to model St. Francis’ commitment to peace."

"Changing hearts" is the long-term goal, says Father Liam McCarthy.

Photo Courtesy of Liam McCarthy, O.F.M.

Now stationed in Rome at St. Isidore College, Father Liam, 60, sees the peace agreement as full of promise, but also challenges. He is especially concerned that the people who voted against the peace agreement "don’t feel trampled on. This is no time to be triumphal. Peace is delicate. Let’s bring the ‘no’ voters on board. There can be no losers in this."

Memories of Only the ‘Troubles’

For Belfast-born David McLarnon, it all feels so complicated. He is young enough that all he has ever known in his 28 years are Northern Ireland’s so-called "Troubles." But he is not so young that he doesn’t have clear, vivid memories of sectarian killings, encounters with the British police force (the Royal Ulster Constabulary or RUC), the sounds of bombs exploding in his neighborhood. He recalled these memories in a telephone interview with St. Anthony Messenger from Rome, where he is now a second-year theology student at St. Isidore’s, a Franciscan house of formation. He hopes to make his solemn profession as a Franciscan in the year 2000 and to be ordained a priest in 2004 "if God wills it."

The stories he tells are those of one beyond his years, stories of innocent persons being imprisoned without crime or trial, including an uncle who was taken off to jail by the RUC in the middle of the night. Another uncle was shot dead in 1969, the year before David was born, while hanging up curtains in his Belfast home. Two uncles on his mother’s side were lost to sectarian violence. Two cousins were recently released from prison.

By the time his family moved from a mostly Protestant section of East Belfast to a part of West Belfast heavily populated by Catholics with so-called Republican or nationalist leanings, David was 10. By then he had seen and heard it all. Although his father was "never into political things or paramilitary organizations," young David found himself drawn to the idea of playing a part in "the struggle." By the time he was 15 or 16, David had "all kinds of ideas" running around in his head.

Today, he credits his father with helping him move beyond hatred and recrimination. "He was a man of experience, a man who had seen and been through a lot, lost his own brother to violence, pulled people out of wreckages after bombs. And he knew I was just a 15-year-old kid. I was humbled" by his wisdom.

The impressionable teenager was also saved from a fate that could have taken him from a paramilitary group to prison, untold suffering and God knows what else. Instead, David, who left school at age 15, trained as a carpenter and went to work.

At age 19 he found himself at a shrine of Our Lady, where he had "a powerful experience of God, so powerful it changed my life." When he left the shrine, he was determined "to do something" about his faith that, until then, had been lukewarm. He underwent "a radical change" in his values and his faith began to "come alive. I had fallen in love with God," David explains simply.

It wasn’t too far from there to seminary studies, although he temporarily put aside thoughts of the priesthood while he dated a young woman for a year. After that relationship ended, the idea of becoming a Franciscan "kept coming, and it didn’t go away." He joined the friars in 1993.

As a young Franciscan, not far from 30 and now living in Rome, David is light-years away from the young boy in Belfast who naively entertained the idea of fighting for his country, whatever that might have meant. "First and foremost," he says now, "I am a Franciscan and a Christian. I don’t agree with killing. I want to see the gun taken out of Irish politics altogether."

Feature Photo 3

"The people are sick and tired of violence," says David McLarnon.

Photo Courtesy of David McLarnon, O.F.M.

But he retains his Republican roots, finding it difficult to identify himself as "from Northern Ireland." More comfortable, for him, is to say he is "from the six counties." He doesn’t recognize Northern Ireland as part of Britain.

"It is still a problem for me to be called British. I’m Irish, and have always claimed my Irishness," he says.

Look to the Future

In truth, the recently approved peace agreement is not complicated for David McLarnon alone. A wonderful first step, indeed, but the plan signed on Good Friday and enthusiastically endorsed six weeks later by Irish voters poses concerns for many.

Witness the anger and violence by the Protestant Orange Order in July, when it was denied the right to parade through certain Catholic neighborhoods near Belfast to recall the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II in 1690. The British Parades Commission banned the march in the Drumcree area of Portadown but permitted other Protestant marches through Catholic areas in Belfast. All this left the already-delicate peace effort more precarious.

Other daunting problems remain:

  • What will happen with the disarmament, or so-called "decommissioning," of the IRA’s and Protestant paramilitary groups’ weapons? While the deadline for disarmament is May of 2000, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised that groups seeking representation in the new Northern Ireland Assembly must persuade their military allies to begin disarmament before taking their seats. As this is being written, no such groups have stepped forward to hand in their weapons.

  • How will the thorny issue of reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary be realized? The most heavily armed police force in Europe is almost exclusively Protestant, and has long been seen by Catholics as the enforcer of Protestant domination. Christopher Patten, former Hong Kong British governor and a Catholic, is heading the independent review of the RUC. The principal goal of the international panel he now heads is to create an unarmed force that is more representative of the makeup of the population—53 percent Protestant, 47 percent Catholic—as well as more responsive to neighborhood crime and more trusted by the entire community. The group’s report and recommendations regarding future policing arrangements in Northern Ireland are due next summer

  • The new peace agreement calls for the early release of political prisoners convicted of terrorist acts, possibly including murder. To some the acts are political, to others they are criminal. Following the June election of members to the Ireland Assembly, a North-South Ministerial Council was to begin seeking to resolve the issue.

Yes, the people of Northern Ireland have taken major steps toward peace in their province. But in a land where it is easier to build institutions and structures than trust among people, where centuries-old defeats are nursed and historic victories are marked, the old mind-set still exists: There are either winners or losers. "The political not toward the center but away from it," says Senator Mitchell.

Still, he holds out hope for peace for the people of Ireland, their children and grandchildren. "It is important to know, and always to keep in mind, one’s history," he acknowledges. "But an individual or a society cannot be bound to the past. It is the future to which we must look, especially for the children."

Judy Ball, who has visited Northern Ireland twice, will travel there again this fall. This time she hopes to find clear evidence of peace. She is the managing editor of Millennium Monthly, published by St. Anthony Messenger Press, and the managing editor of American Catholic Online.

New Institutions on the Irish Landscape

The peace agreement endorsed by Irish voters last May calls for the creation of several major new institutions:

  • Northern Ireland Assembly: The democratically elected 108-member Assembly is to include six members from each of Northern Ireland’s 18 British parliamentary districts. As "the prime source of authority," it will gradually take over responsibilities from the British government in all areas except security and prison policies. Arrangements provide for key decisions to be made on "a cross-community basis" by requiring either a majority of the unionist and nationalist delegates present and voting or a weighted majority (60 percent), including 40 percent of each of the nationalist and unionist delegates present and voting.

  • The Executive: This leadership group will be made up of a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister and up to 10 other Assembly members. They will represent Northern Ireland in dealings with the Irish Republic.

  • North-South Ministerial Council: Through this new forum ministers from the Irish Republic will pursue joint policy-making efforts with the Northern Ireland executive. Areas of mutual interest, still to be agreed upon, are likely to include agriculture, tourism, environmental protection and control of welfare fraud.

  • British-Irish Council: This new group will be made up of lawmakers from the British and Irish Parliaments, the new Northern Ireland Assembly and administrations for Scotland and Wales, as well as several smaller entities. It will meet twice yearly to promote harmonious relationships.

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