Struggle For Peace Peace Gains Beachhead In N. Ireland Grass-Roots Action, Stealth Talks Show Promise
For as long as anyone can remember, Clough’s street curbs were painted the red, white and blue of the Union Jack. British flags flew along the roads. To Catholics, those colors and flags snarled - louder than shouts - “Stay out and be afraid.”
On the afternoon of July 24, a 16-year-old Catholic schoolboy named James Morgan was hitchhiking home to a nearby town. A car filled with Protestants gave him a lift. The boy was never seen again.
They tortured and killed James Morgan, throwing his body into a Clough waste pit that held animal carcasses. The local milkman has been arrested in the killing.
For 28 years, such horrific deeds and the vengeance they inspire have fueled Northern Ireland’s terrible war against itself. This struggle between Catholics and Protestants has been one of the international peacemakers’ toughest assignments. Last summer, the town of Clough became one of their victories.
James Morgan’s death came less than two months before official peace talks were scheduled to resume - talks that would take place only if the Catholic Irish Republican Army held the cease-fire it had called on July 20.
So James’ killers could have set off the kind of retaliatory rage that would stop the province’s first real chance for lasting peace. But this time the people of Northern Ireland did not take the bait.
James’ parents begged fellow Catholics not to retaliate.The people of Clough were so anguished over being linked with such horror that a group of them began pulling down the town’s Union Jacks. They stripped the curbs of paint.
Before they finished, the graffiti appeared: “Paint removers, we know you.”
It was a warning from fellow Protestants. But Clough’s residents didn’t stop. Their answer to the threat will bloom in the spring - a peace garden planted in honor of James.
A garden. A cleanup. A tearful plea for peace.
To some, they are a flimsy defense against torture and bombs. But the story of the Morgan family and the people of Clough is one strand in the blanket of healing and reconciliation that is being woven in Northern Ireland.
This summer was a particularly dangerous time of testing. But the blanket held.
In the case of Clough, the peacemakers were residents of the village rather than an organized group. But their response rested on decades of groundwork by religious and community peace groups that have tried to push Catholics and Protestants inch by slow inch past sectarianism.
The six Protestant-dominated counties of Northern Ireland became a province of Britain in 1921, when the Roman Catholic Republic of Ireland was given independence.
Catholics in Northern Ireland, who didn’t have equal civil rights until the 1960s, have fought for political and economic power. Some want to be reunited with the rest of Ireland. Protestants, who generally control both the police force and politics, oppose that merger.
The Troubles, as the fight is often called, have taken 3,225 lives since 1969. In a province of only 1.6 million people, that toll is one that touches almost everyone in some way.
Even in the worst of times, ordinary people have stood amid the rubble of bombs and turned from the bodies of the dead to transform a moment of terror into an image of peace.
But the peacemakers’ work often seems weak medicine for a society as sick as Northern Ireland. In fact, for years it seemed as though all their efforts were having no effect.
Many foreign-policy sophisticates are dubious about the power of grassroots reconciliation. Kevin Boyle was once one of them.
When he co-wrote “Northern Ireland: The Choice” four years ago, he called the province’s peace groups largely ineffective.
Today, with peace negotiations again under way in Belfast, Boyle has changed his mind. Religious and voluntary groups have had a big role in moving the province toward compromise and new ways of thinking, he said.
“All the evidence is clear that, as we say, peace takes root in people’s minds and hearts,” said Boyle, professor of law and director of the Human Rights Center at Essex University in England.
Part of the peacemakers’ success is that they understand something that treaty-makers sometimes forget: This battle is about more than power or jobs or land. It’s also about identity and pride and history.
Northern Ireland is a province where symbols of differences - a flag, a color, a parade - are important enough to die for. So the peacemakers try to hold up new symbols that both communities can live for.
Protestant Hazel Aicken was longing for such a symbol all one summer. So she sat in her garden cutting out thousands of white paper doves. “I had no idea how they would ever be used,” she said. “It was one of those things you think God has told you to do.”
When Canary Wharf was bombed in 1996, ending the IRA’s first ceasefire, 200,000 people from both sides took to Irish streets demanding peace. Aicken’s doves were in the hands of many, distributed by one of the province’s peace groups.
Forsaking their bloody past
Last summer, many people feared that full-scale civil war was going to erupt again around the so-called marching season, when Protestants parade through the Catholic towns that they once controlled. People who feed off violence seized the moment. Riots broke out around the Portadown parades. Two Protestant police officers were brutally killed.
But again the people resisted, not with violence, but with calls for peace.
On Sept. 15, when official peace talks started at Stormont, Britain’s administrative headquarters in Belfast, Rita Restorick, whose son Stephen was the last British soldier to die before the cease-fire, and other mothers of the dead sat before the doors of the meeting place with pictures of their children. They wanted their presence to say that enough killing has been done.
Among the most energetic and innovative of Northern Ireland’s peacemakers are people who belong to a community called Corrymeela. Each year, thousands of people visit the lovely retreat in Ballycastle where Catholics and Protestants live together, trying to make Christ’s loving community a Northern Irish reality.
When a neighborhood blows up - Catholic or Protestant - Corrymeela workers go in to work with the young people. “We have to go in. If we tried to bus kids out, the paramilitaries would blow up the buses,” said Alastair Kilgore, the center’s 55-year-old director, who once did relief work in Africa and was a teacher in Belfast’s toughest neighborhoods.
Corrymeela workshops break down stereotypes - that Catholics are all ginger-haired and superstitious, that Protestants are rich and cold, he said. They encourage each side to tell their stories. Then they nurture friendships between Protestant and Catholic kids who may have never known a single person from the other community.
An unlikely coalition
One reason peace held this past summer despite all the anger and violence was an unlikely and little publicized coalition of former political prisoners who once devoted their lives to butchering and bombing one another. This time they came together to help dampen any rage that might break out as communities, long separated, began to mingle during the cease-fire.
Protestant Martin Snoddon is a big, 42-year-old redhead who served 14 years in prison after bombing a Catholic tavern where IRA soldiers congregated. There, he learned the wrongheadedness of violence.
Now project manager of the ExPrisoners Interpretative Centre, he was on the streets during this tense summer, giving young men advice he wished older men had given him. He told them that their community needed them - but it didn’t need their violent acts.
He convinces them, partly, through his own story.
The bomb Snoddon brought to the Catholic bar went off earlier than planned. Bloody and burning, the Protestant teenager was blown into the street. The IRA wasn’t in the bar that night; the only person killed was a middle-aged mother.
The Catholic crowd outside began kicking and beating Snoddon. As they dragged him toward a place where he could be hanged, the police arrived. Once out of the crowd’s sight, they, too, began beating him. They were Protestants, yes. But policemen, too. And he was a criminal now. “These were the authorities I was fighting in support of,” Snoddon said.
That was his first lesson. The second came quick on its heels.
“I realized that I was in prison while the people who had encouraged me were not,” Snoddon said.
Like other prisoners on both sides, Snoddon began studying for a college degree. As he talked to other inmates, his political thinking developed, and he became more confident that progress, not destruction, was the way to help his community.
Perhaps no other place in the world has drawn as many peacemakers working as doggedly as Northern Ireland has. Many of their efforts never make the news because most don’t talk to reporters and are reluctant to grab credit.
At various spots through this province, combatants and politicians who publicly swear enmity come together secretly in the homes of peacemakers they can trust to keep their confidences.
“We listen,” said one such religious worker who has been in Northern Ireland for years.
“And we try to help both sides listen to each other,” said his wife. “The only thing that can really move people is if trust can build up and that doesn’t happen if people can’t talk to each other.”
Often the efforts yield no direct results. The peace marches of 1976 and 1977 won Peace People founders Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan a Nobel Peace Prize. But the marches didn’t end The Troubles.
Even so, they made a difference, said Martin O’Brien, of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, a group that works for equity in policing and justice issues.
“Killings were rising sharply before that, and ever since they’ve been falling off. We can’t give the peace movement all the credit, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it,” said O’Brien, who started his peace work as a teenager, taking petitions door to door.
Peace talks going on in Belfast could break down any time. Many issues on the table seem impossible to sort out. But the peacemakers who work outside official channels are patient. They have been at work for decades. If the talks fail, they will keep working on the disagreements that doomed them. If the talks succeed, they’ll keep working on the wounds that remain.
The most seasoned peacemakers are long past thinking that The Troubles, the pain that created them and the pain that has come out of them, will be banished quickly.
“You need a framework across generations,” said McAlister, quoting one of his mentors. “For every decade of conflict, you need 100 years of conflict resolution.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:
STRUGGLE FOR PEACE
Today: When Northern Ireland was about to blow up last summer, many of those on the front lines say, decades of work by peacemakers there kept the tiny province from sliding into full-fledged civil war.
This sidebar appeared with the story: STRUGGLE FOR PEACE Today: When Northern Ireland was about to blow up last summer, many of those on the front lines say, decades of work by peacemakers there kept the tiny province from sliding into full-fledged civil war.