The Luck of the Irish
May the peace be with us all
The Sayings of Abu Francis
I say, it’s a thousand times easier to burn a bridge than to build one. This St. Patrick’s Day, as the world teeters on global war and economic collapse, I got to thinking about one of the biggest success stories in the history of nonviolent conflict resolution: the Good Friday Agreement. Driven by 100 years of violence in Northern Ireland, the architects – Catholic and Protestant – helped the people move past the demonization of their enemies to seek the common good. I had the good fortune of traveling to Ireland and Northern Ireland in 2008, where I interviewed Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume for Our Sunday Visitor on the 10th anniversary of the ceasefire. So far – 25 years later – the peace still holds!
Here’s what I wrote.
Catholics and Protestants still undergoing healing after Good Friday Agreement
By Steven Saint
DERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND — Thirty-five years of conflict and violence in Northern Ireland has been memorialized in dozens of murals on buildings in Derry’s Bogside neighborhood. The latest one was unveiled in June to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
The accord brought peace and power-sharing to this troubled quarter of the Irish island. Derry native John Hume, a Catholic, and David Trimble, a Protestant, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 for persuading both Northern Ireland and its southern neighbor, the Republic of Ireland, to say yes to the Good Friday Agreement.
The new mural depicts the faces of four Nobel Peace Prize laureates: Martin Luther King Jr. , Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Nelson Mandela and Hume, who was there for the unveiling, driving five minutes from his tiny office at the University of Ulster. He was congratulated by the mayor, the bishop and Bono of rock band U2 — the latter sending an e-mail.
Still, while the violence in Northern Ireland has tapered off in the ensuing decade, the underlying tension between Catholics and Protestants is alive and well. Just a week after the mural was unveiled, it was attacked by paint bombers. The letters “IRA,” for the nationalist, anti-Protestant Irish Republican Army, are spray painted two blocks from where Hume accepted his accolades.
“The healing process requires both sides to work together in common social and economic interests,”said Hume, now 71. “We must spill our sweat together, not our blood.”
The Good Friday Agreement established a Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government independent of Great Britain, which had ruled Northern Ireland from London for decades. The Northern Ireland Assembly, however, failed to function for half the decade as the two sides continued to point fingers and squabble.
Bombings and violence by both extremes — the Catholic IRA and Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force — jarred the nation and undermined the common trust. Catholics, in the name of reuniting Northern Ireland with the Republic, executed the bloodiest terror attack of the conflict with a car bomb in Omagh that killed 29 and injured hundreds. That attack took place Aug. 15, 1998, four months after the signing of the Good Friday accord.
It wasn’t until 2005 that the IRA finally destroyed its cache of weapons, making good on its stated objective of reuniting Ireland through purely peaceful means, which allowed power-sharing to move ahead.
Hume, who was leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party at the time of the accord, said the successful decade was built on a foundation of people power.
“I insisted that the Good Friday Agreement be put to a vote of the people, not to the politicians,” Hume told OSV. “The paramilitary groups always claimed they acted for the people, but now, only those acting for the agreement represent the people.”
Indeed, the Good Friday Agreement was on the ballot in both the Republic and Northern Ireland — with overwhelming approval in both countries. It’s estimated that 90 percent of Northern Ireland’s Catholics voted in favor of the agreement. Once the people had spoken through referenda, the institutions needed to reflect the people proportionately, Hume said. All parties have been allowed in the assembly, including Hume’s left-leaning, nationalist party, Sinn Fein — the political incarnation of the IRA — and the pro- British Democratic Unionist Party of strident anti-Catholic Rev. Ian Paisley.
The police force, seen in the past as anti-Catholic, has been restructured, integrated and even endorsed by Sinn Fein.
“What is keeping the peace together is the people,” Hume says. “The leaders from both sides are running things together.”
The people may have been unified in their support for the accord, but that unity has not manifested itself on the streets of Northern Ireland. The night Hume was honored in Bogside, marching season began in Belfast, which has a Protestant majority. Derry, which sits 80 miles to the west of North Ireland’s capital, is mainly Catholic.
And marching down the main streets in uniform, piping British songs and carrying the Union Jack, is one way Protestants demonstrate pro-British pride. Marching season, which has taken place for more than 200 years, has long been a source of tension between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Belfast is a gritty, tired city where the lines between Catholics and Protestants are clearly drawn. In fact, miles of brick walls topped with iron and steel fencing — ironically called “peace lines” — separate the Catholic neighborhoods off Falls Road from the Protestant district of Shankhill.
Studies show the peace lines have doubled since the Good Friday Agreement. Much of the segregation is by choice when tensions run deep. The violence of marching season has been reduced not by tolerance, but because the police no longer allow demonstrations in Catholic neighborhoods.
For the common good
Despite difficulties, Hume believes people will best learn to respect each other’s differences when they experience working together for the common good. Even the recently retired Paisley has mellowed, he said, after years as Northern Ireland’s first minister, trying to keep all parties at the negotiating table.
“Europe is the best example in the world of peaceful conflict resolution,” Hume said. “Working together for common social and economic interests is what helps the healing process.”
The next decade will make or break a lasting peace in Northern Ireland as the population demographics shift. Most experts say that if the Protestant majority has not already disappeared, it will by the 2010 census. Hume may, in fact, live to see the fulfillment of his dream of a united Ireland. A majority- Catholic Northern Ireland could very well vote to dissolve into the Republic, if referenda continue to give the people their say.
St. Paddy’s Day 2023 Update: John Hume was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2015 and passed away at the age of 83 on Aug. 3, 2020. The 2021 census revealed that Catholics now outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland, but that more citizens identify with the U.K. than with either Ireland or Northern Ireland. Britain’s exit from the European Union has thrown much chaos into the process of unifying Ireland.