Why is it that the patron saint of Ireland gets a whole season, while even the fathers of the church have to settle for a day, if that? And what did Patrick ever do, besides, of course, converting an island to Christ without a single martyrdom? You can imagine the envy-driven chatterif, that is, we were talking about the rest of us and not about saints.
This being Patrick’s season, the media are focused on the land that became his adopted home and on the people who bear witness to his preaching and his truths. Publishers (including mine) bring out their Irish books (including mine) in March, apparently because they believe that only in the midst of St. Patrick’s season does anybody pay attention to Ireland. Unfortunately, there is some evidence in support of this theory.
This year attention is being paid to an event in Ireland that had precious little to do with anything Patrick wrote or said 1,500 years ago. The event in question is, of all things, a bank robbery. A very big bank robbery.
Last December, a well-trained and highly disciplined gang made an illegal withdrawal from a Northern Bank branch in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The take was an incredible 26 million pounds sterling, about $50 million. News reports at the time noted that it may have been the largest bank robbery in British history. They were silent on the question of where this event ranked in Irish history.
Law enforcement officials and politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea immediately blamed the Irish Republican Army, which has been observing a cease-fire for nearly a decade. But that was not the end of the finger-pointing. Critics suggested that the political party associated with the I.R.A., Sinn Fein, had damaged its standing in the tortured, byzantine Irish peace process. Indeed, some independent monitors of the peace process said outright that some Sinn Fein officials with I.R.A. connections sanctioned the huge heist, as well as several smaller robberies.
So during this St. Patrick’s season, there’s a cloud hanging over Ireland. Check thatthere are more clouds than usual hanging over that damp island. The president of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, has said the I.R.A. was not involved, but very few people believe him, and that includes the Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern.
Just a few months ago, there was talk that a breakthrough was at hand in Northern Ireland. The peace process was bogged down in interminable discussions over demands that the I.R.A. give up its remaining weapons so that Sinn Fein could continue as a partner in the process. Ian Paisley, the Presbyterian minister who gained fame for his anti-popery sermons, rode a Protestant/Loyalist backlash against Catholics and Republicans to assert himself as Northern Ireland’s most prominent political leaderagain.
But when the I.R.A. seemed to signal that it would decommission (that is peace-process-speak for destroy, as opposed to the word never to be spoken: surrender) some of its arsenal, hopes soared. There was talk of an ultimate irony, of Paisley serving as first minister alongside Sinn Fein officials like Martin McGuinness, an ex-I.R.A. man, in a new Northern Ireland cabinet.
Now all is changed, as Yeats wrotechanged utterly. The bank robbery has been a huge setback for Ireland’s peacemakers. As of this writing, most informed commentators believe that Gerry Adams will be denied a chance to meet with President Bush on or near St. Patrick’s Day. Adams has been a regular visitor to the White House during this festive season of the year since the mid-1990’s. But now Adams and Sinn Fein are seen as apologists for an I.R.A. outrage.
Perhaps the most alarming development in recent weeks was a statement issued by the I.R.A. indicating that it was ready to resume its armed campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland. That is precisely the opposite of what must happen in Ireland. It is time for the I.R.A. to disband.
The Northern Ireland of 2005 is not the Northern Ireland of the 1960’s, when all Catholics were second-class citizens at best. What’s more, the world has changed since Sept. 11, 2001. If the I.R.A. were to resume military operations against Britain, it would be fighting not just the British but the United States as well.
The trans-Atlantic alliance that defeated fascism in the 1940’s is at war once again, this time against militant Islam. America, itself in the cross hairs of terrorists, will not stand idly by if Britain is attacked by the I.R.A.
So the I.R.A. has a choice: war or peace. It claims to favor the latter. If so, the next step is clear. It is time for it to disband.