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Long journey from peace on paper to peace on earth

In Northern Ireland, long a tangled skein of slogans, “Not an Inch” was the threat uttered most ominously and embedded most deeply in the uncompromising Unionist psyche. There were variations on the theme, such as “No Surrender!” or “No Pope Here.” Behind the swagger and posturing was the fear that an inch, if given, might become a mile and land all Unionists in Dublin if not in Rome under the sway of the pope, whom one of them used to call “Old Red Socks.”

On Nov. 27 they gave up a historic inch, and the world is about to find out where it will take them.

The bones of the story are well known. The latest phase began with a nonviolent struggle for social and political justice by the Catholic minority, inspired by the U.S. campaign of Martin Luther King Jr. -- and at this pivotal moment it’s only fair to say that the Irish Republican Army was part of that peaceful movement, with scarcely a gun to its name in 1969. The Catholic slogan at the time was undemanding and almost quaint: “One man, one vote.” Only people with property could vote, and Unionists owned most of the property. If the Unionists had given an inch then, it might have saved a generation of destruction and 3,300 lives.

Or perhaps not -- logic is an unreliable guide in the face of fear and anger. So years of suppressed animosities blew the lid off. Few on either side remain untouched by three decades of tragedy. Guns and bombs and marching and words all mingled to create a society in turmoil. Amid the death and destruction, good people, the vast majority of Northern Ireland’s population, tried suggestions and risked solutions, mostly in vain. Communities have souls analogous to people’s souls, and the Northern soul was sick.

In the past few years Northern Ireland grew weary of war, but not enough to make peace. There had been so much pain. Yet something was stirring in a new, volatile Irish stew that included participation by the governments of London and Dublin; by Sinn Fein, ally of the IRA; by an American named George Mitchell. Much of this was new, as was the partial repudiation, at last, of the Rev. Ian Paisley, the most hearty hater in the North.

All these were but straws in the wind, tips of an iceberg. They do not explain what came after them. Something took place greater than any single event or contribution and greater even than the sum of these. Something stirred in the soul of the community, and the unthinkable happened, as it sometimes does.

People acted out of character, for one thing: from Unionist leader David Trimble, once a militant not-an-incher, to Martin McGuinness, once an IRA commander. Old enemies, all walking on ice, moved closer to each other; close enough to see that the other was human. Former Senator Mitchell must get much of the credit for this. He took the feuding factions away from the media spotlight, away out of sight to confront themselves and each other. Some, such as Trimble and Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, had refused for years to speak to each other. Mitchell joked, according to news reports, and both sides laughed. It was as elementary as that.

Such elemental mistrust is repeated, as each day’s news reminds us, all over the world. It would be ironic, and immensely gratifying, if, in years to come, other communities were beating a path to Northern Ireland to see how a whole people learned to save its community soul.

Paper agreements are not enough, and neither are new structures. For half a century there was a parliament in Belfast with the very kind of limited powers this new one will have, with the sharing of power on paper just like this one. Under that system there flourished one of the most refined and enduring expressions of discrimination and repression anywhere this century.

It all now depends on what the people, and especially those in power, do with their new opportunity. Carefully chosen words on paper will remain just that if they are not backed by an immense urge to goodwill and healing. There is reason to hope this might happen, that people, as if walking past a mirror, might recognize themselves in “the other side.” It would be a great way to finish out a millennium, a great way to embark on a new one.

National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 1999