Chicago SunTimes, August 18 1998
Just days before the historic referendum vote in Northern Ireland I walked towards a Belfast shopping district with my small son in his stroller. A young man approached me and suggested I cross the street, pointing to a suspicious car parked awkwardly in a driveway, abandoned. “The bomb squad is on the way, so you’re better off over there,” he said, cheerfully shoving me across the street.
I shuddered and hurried past, visions of what could be drawing ugly pictures in my mind.
Last Sunday I awoke to see police officers on the morning news removing twisted baby carriages from the carnage that was once the centre of a thriving market town, Omagh, and learned that 28 people had died in what has become the worst atrocity in 30 years of violence in the North of Ireland.
Like the rest of the country, I felt overwhelming grief and horror, but also an undercurrent of shame. Shame because two months ago we drank champagne from the top floor of the Europa hotel celebrating the end of war as we watched election results pouring in, evidence of a new direction for this tormented province.
The day after the victory party I boarded a plane to Chicago for a cousin’s wedding. There I assured inquiring relatives that a new day in Northern Ireland had dawned. They were skeptical that thirty years of violence could so neatly resolve itself after barely a year of talks, ending in a negotiated settlement. Sure there will be some bang-bangs and some dissidents would try to blow some things up, I told them. But that will be it; the war is over.
Twenty-eight dead, including nine children. Three generations of women out shopping, literally gone in a flash. Four school children on a holiday trip never to return home to waiting families. As the bodies emerging from the rubble are gradually given faces and lives, the reality and completeness of this tragedy snuffs out the hope that people in Northern Ireland have tentatively allowed themselves to feel since that vote two months ago.
I feel shame because I detached myself with the first reports of the Omagh bombing, the bang bang I blithely predicted two months ago. When my husband brought me the news I nearly dismissed it with, “Well, we all knew something like this would happen.”
Five years in Belfast taught me detachment. My husband hasn’t been here that long, and he wears his anger and grief on his sleeve. I listen and tell him if he is going to live here he couldn’t take it so personally. We have a son, a life, a family, a home.
I had been here just a year when I wandered into town one day after a woman who drank in my local pub had been lured into a Protestant, paramilitary drinking club just ½ mile from where I lived and viciously butchered. I met someone I knew and we embarked on a pub crawl, where I asked in anguish, “How do you live with this?” He looked at me and told me I was really bringing him down. “You learn to get on with it,” he said to me.
The bombing in Omagh, besides leaving the country staggering in grief, was compounded by thirty years of learning to “get on with it.” The destruction strangled a healing process slowly emerging since the overwhelming vote in support of the peace agreement. It has twisted a knife in the psyche of every person who had just begun to deal with a grief suppressed for decades. After a tantalising taste of peace, people began to acknowledge the pain they repressed as a coping mechanism, a necessity of living where violence is the norm. Bereavement became the word of the day, and after thirty years of learning to get on with it, a few blessed months of peace allowed people to examine their hurt in the normality and safety of peace.
That has been destroyed. This prospect of peace has rested uncomfortably on wary and weary shoulders, but until Saturday, people clung to the possibility of the future.
When I was in Chicago I was shocked at the number of people who expressed disbelief that the Troubles had truly ended, and in some cases, disenchantment with the Good Friday Settlement. It angered me, because they thought they knew what was good for Northern Ireland, although 71 percent of the population thought otherwise. They seemed all too willing to continue the carnage in someone else’s backyard, for an ideal
Perhaps because I am an outsider here I feel this shame. As an Irish American I grew up with The Troubles, and felt a sense of kinship, a bond that brought this struggle close to home. Perhaps that is why I came here. Walking by a roped off abandoned car with my son in his stroller and a hundred other incidents that tied my stomach in knots made me realise how easy it is to watch a war on the news and in the papers and become an armchair general.
I fear now that many Irish Americans do not want this war over, unless it is unequivocally won. I grew up singing “The Soldiers Song” and shouting “Up the Republic!” over and over again every St. Patrick’s Day. By the age of fourteen I read every book on Michael Collins, the Easter Uprising, and the colonization of the North. I cherished an ideal handed down by my grandparents who came to a new country because there was no justice at home. I longed to see that justice done in my lifetime, a nation once again.
A small but vocal minority of Irish Americans still cling to that ideal, believing the Good Friday Agreement is a sell out despite the overwhelming vote by Catholics and Protestants alike in the North. Last weekend’s bombing may re-enforce there anger, give fuel to the fire that there is no other solution. But it is all too easy to cling to ideal from 4.000 miles away. When the twisted stroller belongs to a stranger one can weep for it from a distance and allow an angry ideal to overshadow political reality.
Two months ago the people of Northern Ireland voted for an end to the conflict. Over ninety percent of nationalists ultimately chose a political route towards a united Ireland. In the face of that, it is, as John Hume says, undiluted fascism to continue to maim and kill in the name of an aspiration, an ultimate goal.
Nobody in this province is one hundred percent happy with the peace settlement, but they have weighed their options, made a decision, and voted to move forward and put the years of strife behind them. The Irish feel a kinship with Americans as well, and look to this country for support. But that kinship calls for respect, and those who feel betrayed by the settlement must ask themselves what right they have to put idealistic aspirations ahead of the realities of the people who must live here.
One month ago the three boys killed in a sectarian fire bombings were called martyrs for peace because the horrific deaths halted a violent situation screeching out of control. The death of those boys united people in their resolve to make this peace process work. This country, over 800 years of strife, has seen too many martyrs, and they well know it.
Anger and grief, once it is spent, must be replaced by whatever remnants of shattered hope arise from the rubble in Omagh. The mindset that ended the lives of 28 people – Catholics, Protestants, Spaniards, women, children and the unborn – must not be supported by idealistic Americans. Individual aspirations at some point must remain in the heart and be surrendered to the political will of the majority. The people in the North of Ireland are resilient, and deserve our respect, our support and our prayers for the path they have chosen.