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Nobel prize crowns Northern Ireland peace process

In the middle of Northern Ireland’s pain the sun shone briefly in 1976 when Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, a Catholic and a Protestant, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Years passed, many more died and now the clouds have lifted again as another Protestant and Catholic were awarded the coveted prize that ironically is won only out of the ruins of war.

This international endorsement of the peace process will encourage the doubters on both sides to accept and support the will of the great majority of the electors both of Northern Ireland and the Republic, as confirmed in recent plebiscites.

Many people share the credit for the Good Friday Agreement which gives the 1.7 million people of Northern Ireland serious hope of a friendly resolution of the conflict that has split them for nearly 400 years: Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain and Bertie Ahern of Ireland, President Clinton, and Mo Mowlam, the British Secretary for Northern Ireland.

Nevertheless, the decision of the Oslo Committee to single out David Trimble, Protestant leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and First Minister of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, and John Hume, head of the mostly Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party, was both astute and logical.

The citation noted Trimble’s “great political courage.” The self-identification of Ulster Loyalists is that of conquerors who must constantly reassert -- as they have done for centuries in their annual parades through Nationalist enclaves -- their seventeenth century conquest. Trimble has repudiated this tribal prejudice by recognizing Nationalists as full citizens with equal rights in what Lord Craigavon had brazenly declared in the 1920s a Protestant state for a Protestant people.

Hume, praised in the citation as the “clearest and most consistent” searcher for a peaceful solution, has been similarly courageous in his patient -- and politically risky but ultimately successful -- insistence on Sinn Fein participation, first in negotiations, now in the Assembly. As Adams commented when the award was announced last week, “There would be no peace process but for his courage and vision.”

Much effort must still be exerted before Northern Ireland’s two cultures achieve a stable equilibrium. The emotional sense of superiority of the Loyalists is as profound as is racism in the United States psyche. It is nearly half a century since Rosa Parks brought about a legal repudiation of racism by refusing to go the back of the bus. How far are we still from purging the monster fully from our national soul?

The Nationalist community also has to change. Reforms in the Republic of Ireland in the past 20 years have done much to mitigate Loyalist fears that any association with the South would impose on them a Catholic culture that most of them abhor. The Republic, for better or worse, has emphatically rejected the efforts of some Catholic church leaders to impose a culture of neo-Christendom.

The Catholic church in the North, for its part, has still to find a way to integrate the two education systems that continue to perpetuate the ancient animosities and distortions. Power and control concerns, disguised as theological justifications, must not be allowed to block this essential reform.

The present agreement falls short of the goal of the Nationalist community, namely, the reunification of the entire island. But it does give the government of the Republic a voice in the affairs of the North. And additional factors favor further movement, provided the changes listed above are effected.

In the past, reunion would have involved a significant reduction of social benefits for the Ulster people. Today living standards in the Republic are higher than those of the United Kingdom. In addition, both parts of Ireland are inescapably drawn closer together by their continuing integration into the European Community. There is much reason for optimism.

National Catholic Reporter, October 30, 1998