The headlines seem to herald an imminent return to violence and mayhem. Leaders who have made compromises are denounced as traitors. Diehards insist on living up to their labels. The public fears a return to the terrible days of war. Outside observers warn of a threat to democracy.
The Middle East? No, Northern Ireland, where a peace accord signed on Good Friday 1998 seems to be forever endangered, where politicians bicker over mind-numbing details and shadowy gunmen eagerly await the collapse of mere politics.
Unlike the Middle East, however, the bad news from Northern Ireland seems exaggerated and overly dramatic. True, an election to the home-rule Parliament was suspended last spring, so democracy seems all the more fragile there. Yes, hardliners and intransigents have gained influence over some moderates. And the Irish-American press regularly features dire headlines and much handwringing about the peace process.
It is worth noting, however, that Northern Ireland today is at peace, and indeed is so far removed from the cult of violence and ideology that a return to war is unthinkable. As of this writing, there is much anxiety over yet another possible postponement of local elections in the province. So far, however, it is all talk and no action, and that is good news. At a time when the front page of every newspaper seems to offer a journey into despairsuicide attacks in Iraq, missile strikes in the Gaza Strip, ambushes in Afghanistan, car bombs in Indiathe news from Northern Ireland actually seems upbeat. Save for a few dissidents, most of whom inflict their ire on other dissidents, the people of Northern Ireland have embraced the promise of peace and have marginalized the voices of hate.
Few Americans appreciate just how far Northern Ireland has comeand how far it still must goas much as Congressman Peter King, a Republican from Long Island. The congressman has been involved in Northern Irish issues since the 1970’s and has been Sinn Fein’s staunchest advocate in America. Although a Republican, he was a key player in President Clinton’s efforts to bring Catholic and Protestant, Nationalist and Unionist, together in the 1990’s. King’s long friendship with Sinn Fein’s president, Gerry Adams, was a critical part of the complex effort to persuade the I.R.A. to give up the gun and take up politics. That decision led to the Good Friday Agreement and the peace Northern Ireland knows today.
I asked King about the latest string of bleak headlines from Belfast. I am basically an optimist, he said, and that self-description alone tells you how much things have changed in Northern Ireland. Fifteen years ago, and perhaps even a decade ago, only a brave soul confessed to being an optimist about that tortured province. But the congressman’s sunny outlook is founded not in delusion, but in reality. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, a thousand things have gone wrong, and any one of them in the past might have meant a return to mass mayhem. But that hasn’t happened.
The Good Friday Agreement, of course, essentially called for power-sharing between Northern Ireland’s Protestant (or Unionist) majority and its Catholic (or Nationalist) minority. It was a bold and brave compromise. Catholics, who believe in a united Ireland, put that dream on hold, perhaps for a long time, in return for a real voice in the province’s affairs. Protestants, who treasure their connection with Britain, granted the mostly Catholic Irish Republic a role in administering the province.
The Protestant community, it must be said, did not embrace the agreement with the enthusiasm of Catholics in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. And since the foundation of a new provincial government in the North, with two Sinn Fein members serving as ministers, Protestant dissidents have tried to derail the peace process. David Trimble, who served as the province’s First Minister before Britain suspended its home-rule government, has barely survived several hardline challenges to his leadership. Every decent person who loves and admires the Irish people has reason to fear what might follow Trimble’s fall. The voice of the Protestant leader Ian Paisley, hoarse as always from his vehement attacks on Catholics in general and the pope in particular, still carries weight in Northern Irish politics.
Congressman King, however, believes that peace has created its own momentum. This is a case where the people really are leading the politicians, he said. It has been nine years since the first I.R.A. cease-fire, and things are happening now in Belfast. People are getting jobs, and there is an influential Catholic middle class that has taken advantage of opportunities to go to college and get ahead. The British obviously are disengaging, Northern Ireland is going in the right direction, and the United States remains engaged in the peace process. All of that acts as a calming influence.
The fact is, despite a year or more of gloomy headlines from Belfast, peace has taken hold in Northern Ireland. Hotels are going up, a sign that tourists are coming to Belfast. Catholics can stroll along Great Victoria Streetin the heart of downtown Belfastwithout fear. I say this almost kiddingly, King said, but the only people I hear complaining are the pub owners in the Catholic ghettos. Their customers now can go elsewhere. That wasn’t true years ago.
Well, nobody ever said that peace and progress would be painless!