Seeking Hope in N. Ireland

Sun-Times July 12 1998

The streets of Belfast are eerily quiet, like the calm before the storm.

Many here in the North have fled to the West of Ireland, or to the safety and sanity of Dublin. Pubs and restaurants closed last week in anticipation of trouble, and will remain closed until the current crisis passes.

The talks over the stalled Good Friday Agreement adjourned days before the Protestant Orange Order began marching through Catholic districts. The tension over banned parades and subsequent protests stymied any potential progress. Politicians hesitate to commit themselves or take risks at such a volatile time. Likewise, what happens over the next week will certainly effect decisions on how to proceed.

While the British and Irish Prime Ministers negotiated frantically behind closed doors, newspapers around the world pleaded for the parties to come to an agreement. The world would not understand if they did not, President Clinton told the press. British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned we were staring into the abyss, and that there was no going back.

British newspapers commented that people in England were weary of the Troubles, and tempted to leave Northern Ireland to sort out its own mess. Words spoken by Senator George Mitchell, who brokered the peace agreement echoed ominously in newscasts throughout the week: “History will not forgive . . . .”

On all sides people in Northern Ireland are being told the world will not understand, and history will not forgive. The deserted streets of Belfast re-enforce this feeling of isolation and abandonment. Those of us who have not jumped ship to the safety of Donegal stock up on canned goods and stay close to home lest the car be taken to add to a burning barricade.

Last weekend I read about the spree of hate killings in Illinois by a crazed white supremacist. Those killings came at a time when I miss Chicago the most. Locked in my home in Belfast listening nervously to the radio for news of violence, I think wistfully of Fourth of July barbecues with my family, the Lakefront alive with fireworks and the CSO booming in the background, the colorful spectacle of the Taste.

As I read about the racist killings back home, I am watching on TV two groups of people 30 miles from Belfast separated by a concrete and steel barricade twenty feet high, acres of barbed wire and a specially made moat. Thousands of riot police and British army troops attempt to keep the Protestant Orangemen away from Catholic residents. Additional troops are on standby.

Both of these stories have made international news. Both involve hatred and bigotry that result in violence. A hatred that runs so deep is difficult for the average person to comprehend. People in Ireland, both North and South, cannot fathom the violence Americans live with day by day.

So it doesn’t surprise me that the world says it will not understand if an Agreement is not reached in Northern Ireland. The people screaming at each other over the divide have a “felt” history we Americans find difficult to understand. The devastating memories of pogroms against Catholics, and the pain and anger felt by Protestants over IRA bombs will not go away because a document was signed by political leaders.

Because of the Troubles, Northern Ireland has had little chance to diversify, or even experience the ethnic diversity Americans take for granted. Northern Ireland has been a backwater, little more than a colony patrolled by an army for a quarter of a century. With little if any investment in the economy during this time, unemployment is the highest in the United Kingdom, and most parts of the Republic. Few people left their communities for fear of sectarian violence.

Yet I have read and heard personally many accounts of African American soldiers stationed in the North during World War Two. Pub owners who refused to recognize the army’s policy of segregation, and chose to throw out the white soldiers who didn’t want to drink with the Blacks. An elderly soldier from the South recalls the joy when an Irish girl – a white girl – asked him to dance and no one thought twice about it

African Americans were treated better in Ireland than they were by there own countrymen. So it’s easy to shake one’s head about what goes on in other people’s backyards. As an outsider and a journalist I usually maintain a semi-objective perspective, and can point to historical reasons for the divisions in Northern Ireland. But after living here for six years the political becomes personal.

Three years ago, I lived in a district that had seen some of the worst it has been in 25 years during the July marches. Night after night I sat by my son’s crib listening to glass shattering and watching the flames rise up over the houses. Rumors flew about people being “put out” of their homes. There were no Catholics in that district, so they turned on students somebody decided were gay. During those days, my neighbors stopped talking to me.

As far as I knew, people were unaware I was raised a Catholic, and nobody seemed to care that my partner was Jewish. We were just Americans. I didn’t wait to see whether somebody decided we were too “Other,” and even though I was told it wouldn’t go down well if I “fled” to Dublin, I camped out on the train station floor with my baby and hundreds of others heading for the border.

Since then we join the exodus every July. Most of our friends shrug and say they hope it will be over by the time they return. Looking beyond the snarling political leaders, and despite centuries old divisions, nobody wants a return to violence. But one gets used to it. As the horrific actions of an insane fanatic in Illinois become a grim reminder of racism, we learn to go on with our everyday lives.

The Good Friday Agreement gave new meaning to the word hope. It became something tangible and within reach. People talked about this beleaguered province becoming a model for conflict resolution. We would see Democracy unfold from the ground up with the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the government structures created by it. “Peace building” became the watchword of the day.

The collective self-esteem of everyday people soared. Suddenly, their bickering political leaders were Nobel Prize winners. American companies wanted to invest. Businesses sprang up in anticipation of self-government. With the war in the Balkans and the Middle East talks collapsing, the world looked to Northern Ireland as a model for conflict resolution and peace building.

Things changed quickly over the past year, and it would be a real tragedy to lose that momentum. Every act of violence has been weighed against the benefits of peace experienced thus far, and strengthens the resolve.

I try to remember that as I pack my bags for Donegal.