Peace Accords in Northern Ireland

Peace and justice advocates and activists, when they’re making their list of "what to be grateful for" in 2007, can look to the peace accords in Ireland as a cause for celebration. After centuries of violence and irrational hatreds it appears that the lions and lambs are now playing together. A few months ago the parish down the street from me sponsored a panel discussion on the current good news out of Ireland. (The pastor is Irish.) The panelists were people who have spent time on the ground and in the thick of Northern Ireland’s "troubles": John J McDonnell Jr.(an American) who is on the Board of Directors of the American-Ireland fund; Hedley Abernathy a Protestant born and raised in Belfast and now a peace building advisor to Catholic Relief Services, and Rev. Robert Whiteside who is vice-president of All Hallows College in Dublin. (All Hallows used to be the principal seminary for training Irish missionaries for places like the United States. Now it is a ministry center and most of the students are lay.) The exchange was enlightening not the least because the panelists avoided the boring language of "spin". Mr. McDonnell emphasized how important it is to listen to the people who live daily in conflict areas, and who one day say loud and clear, "We’ve had enough." That’s what the mothers of Northern Ireland did, he said. The mothers, Catholic and Protestant, said the killing has to stop. Mr. Abernathy, who had just returned from Jerusalem where he was applying his conflict management skills, spoke about the necessity of getting people to the same table where everything is negotiable. A neutral third party is essential to the process, and of course, that’s the role that George Mitchell played so ably in the Irish accords. There was general agreement that for any peace process to go forward families must have access to basic necessities, food, clothing and shelter. The promise of economic stability is definitely a tool for peace making. Fr. Whiteside talked about how essential continuing education in former conflict areas was, the goal being transformation through information. Finally the panel agreed that the Irish Experience could probably be exported to other areas of conflict like Palestine--a hopeful note upon which to end. Yet. . . . The problem with placing all one’s hopes in the Peace Accord basket is that the need for continuing education (as flagged by Fr. Whiteside) and for fostering meaningful conversations between parties whose ancestors lived to kill each other can be overlooked in an atmosphere of public peace. For many years the Catholic and Presbyterian churches in the United States joined with their counterparts in Ireland to form the Interchurch Committee to promote better dialogue and understanding within these religious communities. One program which grew out this dialogue commitment is the Irish Summer Institute which provides opportunities for interested Americans to meet political and church leaders as well as local community activists who share their insights on how Northern Ireland can continue to work toward resolving its long standing differences. It’s a program about peace building, and that doesn’t happen with simply a signature--important as that is. An American Catholic church leader who has been involved in the Irish Summer Institute for a dozen years told me it is now harder to raise money for this project than it used to be. People believe the problems are solved. But laying down the guns is only the beginning. A lingering, burning question remains: after the violence stops, then what? It’s a question which Americans tend to avoid (as vividly displayed in the film Charlie Wilson’s War). But it’s a question we avoid at our peril. I’m happy, indeed, that we have peace brokers like George Mitchell; but I’ll be joyful if the peace builders will step forward. Dolores Leckey
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