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N. Ireland accord offers chance to begin again

Any good news out of Northern Ireland is worth putting to music after nearly 30 years of “troubles” and more than 3,000 dead. And anyone who steps forward and takes a risk in a place so parched for peace is worthy of high praise. The human race is so askew -- call it the problem of evil or original sin -- that only occasionally is the right temper found, the right circumstances, the leaders in the wings, for significant remedies to such old dilemmas.

All hail, then, to the courageous people who made history in Belfast April 10, including David Trimble and Gerry Adams and John Hume and Mo Mowlam and Tony Blair and Bertie Aherne and George Mitchell and Bill Clinton (involved in the peace settlement).

But behind these prominent names there are thousands of others, Protestant and Catholic, Irish and otherwise, who transcended dreadful circumstances to keep a spark of hope alive or to nudge tolerance into action or to publicly or even privately forgive some of the dreadful crimes committed. Life was very raw and intense for a generation, and while it dragged some down, it brought out the best in many. All hail to them, too.

The Belfast peace agreement -- with something for nearly everyone, including a promise to loyalists/Protestants that British rule will not be yanked from them by force, and a promise of a cross-border body for nationalists/Catholics to keep their all-Ireland hopes alive -- has been repeatedly described as the end of the “troubles.” But it’s hard to pinpoint the end of a quarrel that goes back to the civil rights marches in the 1960s; goes back to the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty and the border the loyalists wrapped around themselves in the six most Protestant counties; and back before that to the Plantation of Ulster in 1611, when the native Irish Catholics were driven from their lands to make room for loyalists; and even before that to 1169, when an Irish petty king invited over a British warlord to help settle a local score, never suspecting the guests would stay century after century.

It’s not easy to bring all that to a close.

“I don’t think there will be peace,” said a young Catholic visiting Milltown Cemetery where most of the dead republicans were buried wrapped in flags. “There is still too much to be settled.” If one’s uncle or sister was killed by the other side, not by accident but out of ancient bitterness, such a death seems in vain unless there is payback.

When the TV crews and the big names go home, who will dare pull down the “peace line,” Ireland’s own Berlin Wall between the bitterest neighborhoods of Belfast that was being refurbished even as the talks were concluding?

Every eligible citizen gets a chance to vote on what will happen next. Among the enemies of this peace looms the Rev. Ian Paisley, head of his own homemade church, who in 30-odd years rose from local buffoon to international politician while spewing public hate and division as the conflict spread. Paisley will not go gently into any peaceful future.

Other, less raucous but more insidious factors pose an equal threat. Most reports mentioned that the new peace accord will end the IRA campaign of violence -- as if that were the heart of the matter. Such accounts neglect to mention the decades of sophisticated but brutal discrimination carried out by the majority against the minority. The first peaceful (almost) civil rights march, in 1968, was triggered by the eviction of a Catholic family of 10 from a council house in the village of Caledon so that a 19-year-old Protestant girl could have it. This was not a bureaucratic screw-up but business as usual under 50 years of Unionist rule. And housing was but one element in a refined system of social suppression.

Can Northern Ireland, long mired in injustice as well as violence, weary for so many good and bad reasons, now rise to the challenge of a new tomorrow? Some countries have transcended histories as awful as Ireland’s, from Germany’s amazing unification to South Africa’s even braver confrontation of old evils.

As the big players go home, the more tedious task now begins: rebuilding peace from the ground up. If anything worthwhile is to happen, the churches must be prominent, first as signs, also as guarantors and movers and makers. And the outside world must be prominent, especially the United States, providing material help but especially moral support to a province where both sides believe America is the last stop before heaven.

It will still take courage, patience and ingenuity to bring to conclusion what the peace accord so tantalizingly promises. This is less an ending of anything than a precarious beginning, perhaps of something lasting and great.

National Catholic Reporter, April 24, 1998