Real Work Begins in N. Ireland

Chicago SunTimes – December 5, 1999

While watching the evening news summarize the establishment of a new government in Northern Ireland, I hushed my small son who was playing noisily with his cars on the floor. “This is history!” I admonished him. He paused to watch and asked innocently, “Oh! Is history nice or is he a pig?”

After three years of riding the roller coaster of history in the making in Northern Ireland, I wonder how often I have been guilty of summing up someone else’s politics with a three-letter word muttered under my breath. It’s easy to see why this tortuous peace process has experienced so many highs and lows. Intense emotions on all sides have underscored the necessary give and take involved in a compromise.

This past week, three years of history in the making was fast-forwarded when the largely Protestant Ulster Unionist Party finally cemented support for the Agreement reached 19 months ago. A new government was put into place one day; the British Parliament turned over power the next, and on the third day the Republic of Ireland passed legislation removing its claim over the territory in the North.

The years of sluggish progress filled with incredible highs and disheartening failures unfolded remarkably without passion. The world media dutifully turned up to report, once again, history in the making. But after so many false starts, they watched rather warily, if not wearily, as self-government apparently became a reality.

History can be made by one bold action, but sometimes it moves forward like the uncertain, awkward steps of a toddler. But we love that first, brash move when a child takes its first step before adoring onlookers. We beam and cheer and capture it on film because it represents moving forward in life.

But we take little notice of the faltering steps that follow.

When the British Prime Minister flew to Northern Ireland 19 months ago as the clock ticked dangerously toward the deadline for reaching a peace accord, he said he felt “the hand of history” on our collective shoulders.

The signing of the Good Friday Agreement gave us the lump in the throat, the swelling in the heart, and the awesome realization that we were witnessing a turning point in history.

The euphoria that followed the vote in support of that Agreement – the cheer that went up when the totals were announced and the joyous headlines that followed heralded another triumphant, historical moment.

But history was also marked on August 1998, just four months after the Agreement, when a bomb ripped apart the center of a small market town called Omagh. Twenty-nine people died making it the worst atrocity in thirty years of the Troubles.

Many watched in despair last July as the historical deal crumbled when the New Northern Ireland Assembly officially folded before it even began. We all wondered what happened to all that historical momentum.

In the wake of the Agreement’s collapse, George Mitchell, who helped fashion the historical accord, warned that “history would not forgive” the failure of the warring parties to follow through on the deal. His ominous words brought home the responsibility behind the exhilaration of making history.

I remember when the first African American woman was elected to the US Senate, and she greeted her cheering supporters declaring, “You are history makers!”

We all love that feeling, but now perhaps the people of Northern Ireland can leave the weight of history behind them. The challenge of leaving the past in the past, and the pain of 30 years of violence, may in fact be equal to the incredible responsibility the future holds.

It was no mistake when the political parties divided up the governmental tasks last Monday, the responsibility for Health and Social Services was almost last to go. While this department promises to be central in any government, it also brings with it the terrible woes of cost overruns, hospital closings and mismanagement.

For outsiders like the Nationalist Sinn Fein party, to hold this post would bring them into the heart of a government they have been excluded from and fought so hard to participate in these past few years.

Eventually they took the poisoned chalice that brought them into the fold, giving them power in the heart of government. But the incredible responsibility behind the joy of historical moments was apparent as they anxiously adjourned for discussion before taking the plunge.

History has always peered ominously over the shoulders of the Irish. Throughout the talks it was said that Irish nationalists must consult the graveyard before making decisions, the centuries of history weighing heavily on their shoulders.

Now it is time to look at the baby steps, and to move into the future instead of clinging to history. The events of this week, as dispassionate as they seemed after so much upheaval, are indeed historical.

But the real changes will come slowly and without the benefit of the momentum of being on the world’s stage. The deal is finally done.

Even as an outsider and supposedly objective observer, I have been guilty of labeling someone a pig often enough for my child to pick up on it. It will take a generation at least, for dispassionate judgment to replace old biases.

While the history books may mark the dates and events of the past week, it is that slow march of history that will make all the difference.