In Northern Ireland, No Winners or Losers

Chicago SunTimes, January 24, 1999 

Upon receiving the Martin Luther King Jr. prize for peace in Atlanta this week, Nobel Prize winner John Hume remarked that “in a divided people, victories are not the solution.”

As “the man of vision” behind the Northern Ireland peace process, Hume put his finger on the reason 1998 will prove to be a turning point in Northern Ireland’s turbulent history.

It was the year the gun was to be removed from Irish politics. Yet the year began with a murder spree leaving 10 Catholics dead in the early weeks of January. It saw three young brothers killed in a sectarian arson attack in July, and just one month later, 29 people of all denominations blown away in the worst bomb attack in the 30 year history of the Troubles.

It was also the year that brought tears to the eyes of weary politicians and civilians alike in the early hours of Good Friday when the historic peace accord was reached. It saw a massive voter turnout and a 71 percent vote in support of that peace, and the opening of the New Northern Ireland Assembly, where parties from all sides of the conflict sat in the first self governing body of its kind in the history of the Province.

And, as if to cement the year symbolically in the history books, it saw the Nobel Peace Prize given jointly to a Catholic and a Protestant.

In his speech last Monday Hume also pointed out that to inflict defeat on former enemies at such a crucial time would only hinder the progress symbolized in the Good Friday peace accord.

This tendency towards “zero sum politics” has repeatedly thrown roadblocks on the path towards peace. What one party or group sees as beneficial automatically triggers a negative response from the opposing party, the assumption being what is good for one group automatically takes away from another.

The Good Friday Agreement, which offered something for everybody while admittedly leaving each party with some level of dissatisfaction, gave a glimmer of hope that such zero sum politics may fade away.

While the seeds for a peaceful future were sown in the Good Friday Agreement, events in 1998, tragic and otherwise, reflect the beginnings of the change so desired by Hume.

When the three young Quinn brothers were killed in July amidst a bloody standoff between Protestant Orangemen attempting to march through a Catholic area, it was difficult to remember the heady days of Spring when people embraced in the streets in disbelief over the prospect of peace. But the children unexpectedly became martyrs for peace, and the predicted long hot summer of violence came screeching to a halt as Catholics and Protestants alike turned away from the rioting in disgust, and even shame.

Just one month later a 500 pound bomb devastated a small market town, killing 29 Saturday afternoon shoppers, including three Spanish tourists. The images of horror that played on every TV in Ireland will never be forgotten, and for a while it seemed that peace was only a temporary leap of imagination on the part of the country’s leaders.

But what should not be forgotten is the incredible courage and dignity of the people of Omagh, and the unified condemnation of a random and horrific act that in the end, brought Catholics and Protestants together to marginalize extremists who claimed that peace was not enough.

As the Northern Ireland Assembly lurches uncertainly into 1999, the newspaper headlines flash from one “crisis” to the next. Protestant Unionists insist they will not sit in government with the Catholic/Nationalist Sinn Fein until the IRA decommissions their weapons, and Catholic nationalists cry foul at what they see as a breach of the agreement reached last April which allowed for two years for the handover to take place.

Deadlines laid out in the peace accord have been missed and rumors circulate that the British government may have to step in and impose a structure if one cannot be agreed upon.

Punishment beatings – a form of vigilante justice against petty criminals – are on the rise, with no relief in sight as long as a police force which is over 90 percent Protestant patrols Catholic communities.

The peace train which “left the station,” in the words of British Prime Minister Tony Blair last January, seems to have derailed.

But history has the luxury of looking at the bigger picture, and 1998 will undoubtedly be viewed as a watershed. What will be seen is a fundamental shift in thinking, and despite the repeated “crisis,” all parties continue to plug away in the political arena.

For too many – the people of Omagh, the young mother who lost three sons, the families of the 10 people killed in last January’s murder spree and the dozens killed since then – 1998 will be remembered as a year of agony. “I don’t know whether I can pick up the pieces. I don’t have many pieces left in my life,” said Christine Quinn, when speaking of her murdered children.

But each tragedy managed to halt a cycle of potential violence, as if to remind people that peace is all too precious – and tenuous. Despite everything no party has deserted the ship and the ceasefires have remained intact.

Political extremists still exist, as they do in most societies, and they are not likely to disappear overnight. Likewise, the bigotry behind many of the so-called stumbling blocks in the new government is obvious in the thirst for victory articulated by John Hume. The deaths will not end unless a mindset changes.

Hopefully the politicians that brought us thus far in 1998 can risk a further leap of imagination and search for solutions rather than victories in 1999.