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
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."
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
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
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
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.
the peace talks all pledged to take the gun out of Irish
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"The people are sick and tired of violence,"
says David McLarnon.
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.
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
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 pull...is 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
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.