A Different Sort of History

Nearly 30 years have passed since I very innocently asked one of my parish priests, the Rev. Maurice Burke, why Northern Ireland was a killing zone. I was a young reporter at the time, assigned to write a story about this foreign place that, frankly, meant very little to me. I knew one of my grandparents had been born in Ireland, but beyond that, I knew nothing besides the story of St. Patrick and the snakes.
I called on Father Burke for a briefing because I knew he had been born in Ireland, in County Waterford to be exact, and he seemed to be a patient man. I figured he was the right person to deliver a primer to a journalist who knew nothing about Ireland and preferred to keep it that way but for this assignment.

I brought a tape recorder with me to the rectory of Our Lady Help of Christians Church on Staten Island, near my parents house. I generally did not use tape recorders because I did not trust them. What if the batteries ran out? What if the recording itself was flawed? For a briefing on the history of Ireland, however, I broke down and brought along the recorder.

Father Burke considered my question for a momentSo, why are people fighting in Northern Ireland?and then began his answer. I dont remember the entire first sentence, and I long ago lost the tape. But Ill never forget how he started.

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Well, he said, you have to remember that in 1151.

I looked forlornly at my little tape recorder, and realized that I didnt have a second tape. If we were starting this conversation in the 12th century, Id be taking notes by the time we hit the 1700s. And I was.

Such was my introduction to Irish history, a field in which I have been toiling ever since. Father Burke, my first tutor, turned out to be the chaplain for the Irish Northern Aid Committee, which was regularly accused of being a front for the I.R.A. Some years later, a good friend of his was convicted of stealing millions of dollars from an armored car. The U.S. government said the money was intended for the I.R.A.; some of it was never recovered. (As an aside, the man vehemently protests his innocence, although the government surveillance tapes certainly suggest otherwise.)

Ah, the innocence of youth! I had no idea of the minefield I had stepped into with my innocent, and ignorant, question. Father Burkes version of events is not necessarily mine, but I would never deny his influence on my thinking about America as well as Ireland, and his passion for justice.

All of this comes to mind, of course, because history of a very different sort is being made in Northern Ireland this spring. As this publication and many others have observed, the unthinkable has come to pass in the northeast corner of Ireland; and, for once, it is a good thing. Ian Paisley, renowned for his anti-Catholic, anti-I.R.A. oratory beginning in the 1960s, has agreed to lead a new provincial government with Martin McGuinness, an ex-I.R.A. man, as his deputy.

The power-sharing government led by Paisley and McGuinness is the culmination of a peace process begun in the mid-1990s, a peace process that many observers point to as a possible template for conflict resolution around the world. There are many heroes in this story, and yes, Paisley is one of them. Bill Clinton, who made peace in Ireland a priority as no other president ever did, is another.

And so is the outgoing British prime minister, Tony Blair. It is one of those tragic ironies of life, of politics, that Blair has been hounded out of office in part because of his support for the United States war in Iraq. Meanwhile, across the Irish Sea, hundreds of thousands live in peace in part because Blair insisted that war was not the answer to the provinces problems.

Irish-American Catholics who pressured politicians to take a greater interest in Northern Ireland have reason to believe they helped make a difference. Without the intervention of the United States during the Clinton years, it would be hard to picture Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in the same room, never mind as partners in power.

The American component is important to remember, too, because we live in an age when people at home and abroad have concluded that our influence overseas can only be for the worse. As one of the nations oldest graduate students, I can assure you that the mood on campus is decidedly hostile to any notion that Washington can make, or has made, a positive difference in world affairs.

Peace in Northern Ireland certainly does not bear a Made in the U.S.A. label. Irish people themselves, Paisley and McGuinness among them, deserve credit for putting aside the animosities of the past for the sake of the future.

But there is a reason why the Irish built a statue of Bill Clinton (granted, its on the premises of one of Irelands finest golf courses). Clinton, mediator of the Irish peace process, was never cheered as he was during his trips to Ireland.

It is hard to remember in these difficult times, but American power does not have to come from the barrel of an M-16. The sight of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness working together in Belfast ought to remind us of our better angels.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Thomas Shaw
10 years 5 months ago
The sight of Northern Ireland's two opposing forces coming together is to be celebrated. I agree with Terry Golway that Mr. Bair and Mr.Clinton should be acknowledged for their contribution. However, looking to the south and the surging ecomomy of the Irish Republic it is obvoius that employment and a decent standard of living can trump long standing prejudices. This prosperity is seeping over the border into the north - "if you can't fightem, joinem".

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