The unsung heroes of the Irish peace process.

Author:Smyth, Ted

Why did the Irish peace process eventually succeed in stopping the sectarian killing after centuries of violence in Ireland and when other sectarian conflicts still rage around the world? Might there be lessons the Irish could teach the world about reconciling bitter enemies? The political successes in Northern Ireland owe much to that oft-scorned ingredient, patient, determined, and principled diplomacy, which spanned successive administrations in London, Dublin, and Washington. The result is a structure surely durable enough to survive the IRA'S disturbing recent violations: an apparently long-planned $50 million raid on the Northern Bank in Belfast in December attributed to IRA militants and the leadership's unabashedly outlaw offer to shoot their own members responsible for the brutal murder of a Belfast man, Robert McCartney, after a pub quarrel in January of this year. The peace may be tested once again during the perennially volatile "marching season" this summer when Ulster hardliners vent sectarian passions. Still, there is agreement that a political peace now prevails, backed by a popular consensus sturdy enough to frustrate a veto by a violent minority, or a continued criminal conspiracy by Sinn Fein/IRA. The universal public revulsion in Ireland north and south toward the IRA's handling of the McCartney murder and the huge swell of support for McCartney's sisters in their public calls for the arrest and punishment by due process of his killers give ample evidence of the success of the peace process. Twenty years ago, the McCartney sisters would have been viewed as traitors to their Catholic tribe, but today they are celebrated for their courage and integrity.

The road to peace in Ireland was led by many, many individuals who made contributions large and small. There were politicians who were truly heroic, but it should never be forgotten that the ordinary people of Northern Ireland steadily found their own way toward reconciliation, defying history and the climate of fear. Maurice Hayes, a columnist for the Irish Independent and a veteran peacemaker puts it well: "Throughout the troubles, in the darkest days, there have been outstanding examples of charity and courage, of heroic forgiveness, often, and most notably, from those who had suffered most. One thinks of Gordon Wilson, who held his daughter's hand while she died in the rubble of a bombing in Enniskillen, dedicating the rest of his life to the search for reconciliation." (1)

Some of the finest people from two continents worked on the Irish peace process for 30 years, and their influence was apparent in three decisive elements that made the difference between success and failure. The first element was strong political leadership in pursuit of a unifying vision consistently supporting nonviolence. Such leadership is rare, but just as South Africa was fortunate to have Nelson Mandela to lead it peacefully to freedom, so Ireland was fortunate to have John Hume, an eloquent, charismatic Irishman with a Ghandi-like faith in nonviolence. As long ago as 1972, the soft-spoken founder and former leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), an essential voice of moderation and nonviolence for 30 years, stated that peace could only be based on "an agreed Ireland," with shared government between the two nationalisms, the Irish Nationalists who wanted Irish unity, and the British Loyalists, who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom.

The second key element was political imagination and receptiveness to new ideas by key politicians and officials in Ireland and Britain who established a series of institutional frameworks to build confidence between the two sides and to provide security. Among these institutions were the Sunningdale Agreement, the New Ireland Forum, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and the Good Friday Agreement. Probably the most important breakthrough was the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which guaranteed the equal legitimacy of the conflicting loyalties by giving the Irish government a significant role in Northern Ireland for the first time in history. A leading commentator on Northern Ireland, David McKittrick of the London Independent, says: "In retrospect, that agreement was a turning point in the peace process and provided the foundation for its ultimate success." (2) The story of how that agreement was reached and successfully implemented is a combination of shrewd calculation and courage, which lured people from the extremes, promising respect, protection, peace, and a prospect of prosperity.

The third element was the important role of the United States in providing job-creating peace incentives and in correcting the imbalance of power between Britain and Ireland. America, with its 40 million Irish Americans, decisively helped the peace process through at least three major crises that threatened to derail it.

The sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland dates back to the seventeenth century when Protestant settlers from Scotland seized land from the native Catholic Irish as part of the British attempt to colonize Ireland. But Ireland was always a troublesome colony, and just before the outbreak of the First World War the British government reluctantly concluded that it could not govern the country and moved to grant a form of independence. The Loyalists settlers in the northeast, fearful of losing privileged status, smuggled weapons from Germany preparing to fight British troops if necessary to retain the British link. By 1920, the British government gave in to these threats and partitioned Ireland, in effect gerrymandering a majority for the Protestant Loyalists. Half a million Irish Nationalists were trapped within the new border.

Successive British governments legitimized this stand-off by guaranteeing that Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK so long as the Loyalist majority wished it. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 1979, John Hume concluded that this "produced the basis for a half century of injustice, discrimination and repressive law, a situation in which the minority community have been the persistent losers and victims" (3)

The state that was founded on violence went on to erupt in regular cycles of violence during the twentieth century, the worst being the recent "Troubles" that left 3,600 dead and thousands more dreadfully maimed. The beginning of this latest conflict can be traced to the Loyalist murders in 1966 of three innocent civilians (one a 77-year-old Protestant, mistakenly assumed to be Catholic). At the time, many Catholics and Nationalists were inspired by the American civil rights movement to march for basic rights such as "one man, one vote" and fair allocation of public housing. The marches, with the familiar refrain of "we shall overcome," came under increasing attack by both Loyalists and the local police, with 77 injured in a Derry march in 1969. Ian Paisley emerged as the leader of the Loyalists, ranting against Catholics and whipping up fear among Protestants. In the summer of 1969, 150 Catholic homes in Belfast were...

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