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By Mark Noll

Belfast: Tense with Peace, Part 1

In late August 1994, Sinn Fein, the political party that speaks for the clandestine Irish Republican Army, announced that the IRA's campaign of terrorist violence against British rule in Northern Ireland would be suspended. Soon thereafter, the major terrorist organizations that presume to act on behalf of Northern Ireland's Protestant majority reciprocated with word that they, too, would honor this cease-fire. Negotiations toward a long-term solution of the Troubles--which, since 1970, had been marked by a sickening cycle of terrorist action followed by terrorist retaliation as well as massive public displays of force by the British military--immediately intensified. Those negotiations have to date involved the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, leaders of the local police force (the Royal Ulster Constabulary), delegates from the Irish Republic, and representatives of the province's political parties. Prime Minister John Major's unwillingness to let Sinn Fein and the tiny parties speaking for the Protestant terrorists participate in the negotiations until these militants begin turning in their arms and explosives has bogged down the peace process. But every month that the cease-fire continues, hope--for so long the rarest of commodities in Northern Ireland--has managed to survive. Could it be that peace is about to break out in this troubled corner of the world?

1. Events in Northern Ireland during the first half of July, ten months after the cease-fire began, suggest that the situation, though now genuinely hopeful, remains also explosively complex.

Most notable on the positive side of the ledger this past summer was the nearly universal tribute marking the passing of an ordinary Irishman whose self-consciously Christian response to terrorism made an extraordinary impression. On Veterans' Day, November 11, 1987 (which the British style Remembrance or Poppy Day), the IRA exploded a bomb in Enniskillen, a country town 70 miles west of Belfast, amid a group of Protestants who had gathered to commemorate the war dead. This craven act of barbarism killed 11 people and wounded 63 others. It would have been soon forgotten as merely another in an endless string of atrocities, however, had it not been for the response of one of the wounded. Gordon Wilson, a Methodist born in the Irish Republic who had moved to Northern Ireland and established himself in a drapery business, was attending the ceremony with his 20-year-old daughter, Marie. They were caught in the blast. Marie Wilson died soon after the explosion while, under the rubble, she was clutching her father's hand.

That night, from his hospital bed, Gordon Wilson told a reporter, "I have lost my daughter, but I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Talk of that kind is not going to bring her back to life." In that same interview, he also said he would pray for those who had murdered his daughter.

As soon as he was released from the hospital, Gordon Wilson began a personal campaign for Protestant-Catholic reconciliation. Later it came out that Protestant paramilitaries were dissuaded from avenging the Enniskillen bombing because Wilson's public statements made it politically unwise for them to act in reprisal. Wilson wrote a book called "Marie," spoke at every opportunity about his hope that the violence could end, and constantly reiterated, "Love is the bottom line."

His campaign for peace was passionate, indiscriminate, and nonpartisan. In 1992 he arranged a secret meeting with members of the IRA where he personally forgave them and urged them to lay down their arms. When they refused, Wilson came out boldly for interning terrorists (that is, imprisonment without normal judicial safeguards). Later, he met with Sinn Fein representatives, served on several peace commissions in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and endured harsh criticism from Protestant sectarians who felt he was selling out their side. In a magnanimous gesture that gave Wilson's cause even more visibility, the taoiseach (or prime minister) of the Republic of Ireland, Albert Reynolds, in February 1993 made Wilson a member of the Irish Senate.

When Gordon Wilson died at the end of June, tributes poured in from all over, many from ordinary people who had been encouraged in their own peacemaking by Wilson's example. Praise came also from representatives of Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as from Irish republicans, nationalists in Northern Ireland, and unionists in Northern Ireland. Extremists who felt that Wilson had nothing to offer them were conspicuous by their silence.

The heartfelt commendations for such a man on such a mission spoke volumes about the deep longings for peace shared by so many in Ireland. If much that was said in Wilson's memory was sentimental--if, that is, tributes were short on specifics for how to achieve his goal of ending the political stalemate--still it was noteworthy that such broad-based sentiment supported the effort to walk that path.

Realistically considered, Northern Ireland's political problem remains intractable. So far, no one has come even close to a solution to its dilemma--how to please both a Protestant majority (about 60 percent) that overwhelmingly wants to keep its place in the United Kingdom, and a Catholic minority (about 40 percent) that repudiates the legitimacy of British rule, probably just as overwhelmingly, while seeking its heart's home in the Irish Republic.

Historical, ideological, and political complexities notwithstanding, responses to Gordon Wilson's death in the press, radio, and television conveyed an almost palpable longing that, whatever it took, the peace must hold. And yet, what followed almost immediately was a return to the precipice.

2. News reports in the United States and Canada were quick to spotlight these new outbursts--tense nights of rioting concentrated in Catholic areas followed by tense days of confrontation featuring angry Protestants. The stories behind those outbursts demand serious attention, but not such complete attention as to overwhelm signs of hope that, less obviously, were there to be seen.

The months of uneasy peace since September 1994 have, in fact, witnessed major changes in simple details of everyday life. Before the cease-fire, Belfast, Londonderry, and other cities resembled armed camps. The military presence--made up of both the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and soldiers of the British army--was heavy, touchy, and everywhere. Bunches of soldiers patrolled on foot in urban areas, sauntering out in tight formation with rifles pointed skyward. Squat, steel-shrouded armored cars with a vigilant soldier peering out of the turret, semiautomatic at the ready, passed regularly through the busier streets.

Only a year ago, no one could drive anywhere near the legal-commercial-retail center of Belfast without being subjected to scrutiny at a military checkpoint. If the heavily armed officers in the middle of the street (who were always covered by at least two heavily armed officers poised alertly at the roadside) wanted to check your identity or inquire about your business, they did so. Once past the checkpoints, you could not drive into the central district itself, for, as a prophylactic against car bombs, it was kept vehicle-free. If, after parking on the fringe of Belfast's business district, you wanted to enter the Castle Court shopping complex, you passed further guards who inspected what you were carrying and might give you a quick frisk.

A year ago, moving between Northern Ireland and the Republic resembled something out of a World War II movie. You drove up very slowly to the checkpoint; if it was night, you dimmed your headlights; you proceeded one vehicle at a time past the guards (again, never less than two, and armed to the teeth); you were aware of high, well-fortified towers in the near distance from which heavy weapons were trained on the crossing point to protect the guards and to do unto the paramilitaries before they could do unto the soldiers. Even if you were with someone who had made the crossing many times, and who assured you that these checks were routine, there was a grip in the gut.

A year ago, police stations in the major cities and many in the smaller towns were shielded day and night by armed officers positioned 50 to 100 yards down every road that could lead past the station. The stations themselves were heavily fortified castles of concrete, steel, and barbed wire.

Changes in the wake of the cease-fire are dramatic. Soldiers from the British regular army are now almost never seen, and the presence of the RUC is much reduced. Crossing the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is now an exercise of vehicular dexterity rather than an experience of armed intimidation. At the height of the tension, border guards had constructed small-scale mazes in order to force vehicles to travel slowly and thus to increase their visibility. These mazes remain to confuse drivers new to the island's roads, but fortifications at the crossing points are dismantled, and, if there are any guards present, they remain out of sight in the towers. Access to city centers, shopping plazas, and other congregating points is much less encumbered. Downtown Belfast now sports traffic patterns resembling those in many American cities--where pedestrian malls respond to the dictates of commercial rather than military captains. Given the occurrences of early July, it turns out to be a good thing that police stations are still well fortified, but gone are the foot patrols that once guarded them. The cease-fire, in other words, has made a real difference in what residents experience day by day.

Even more encouraging from a Christian perspective is growing evidence of spiritual exertions toward peace. The number of Protestant ministers, Catholic priests, and other church officials who speak out boldly is still limited, for partisans remain intensely alert to words that could be construed as betrayal. Yet enough do speak out so that all of the major religious bodies in Northern Ireland--Catholics, Presbyterians, Church of Ireland (that is, Anglicans), and many of the smaller Protestant bodies (most of which are evangelical)--can hear from leaders within their own circles of biblical and theological reasons for peace. Behind the scenes, even more efforts are apparently under way--both within the various religious fellowships and across denominational boundaries--toward moderating entrenched antagonisms, toward applying scriptural and theological resources to the situation, and toward ensuring that differences within and between groups are expressed charitably.

The cease-fire has also encouraged significant economic development. To be sure, unemployment remains considerably higher in Northern Ireland than in the rest of Great Britain, and it is a particularly persistent condition precisely in the areas that sustain the harshest sectarian suspicions. Yet construction seems to be going on everywhere in Belfast, including the building of a major new concert hall. Belfast's Opera House, which was regularly bombed during the Troubles, has been resplendently refurbished. In the same week during which observers wondered if the province was careening back into its violent past, the British government announced a major new defense contract for a large, local manufacturer. This was only the latest in a string of new contracts that have been secured since peace emerged as a possibility. One does not need to be a materialist to realize that such development is crucial for a better future, since without work and reasonable economic expansion, the explosive combination of unemployment, youthful alienation, and ideologies of grievance will be much more difficult to defuse.

Peace has also opened up Northern Ireland's underutilized potential for tourism. The province is, in fact, a beautiful region in a beautiful island. But for more than a quarter of a century, the threat of violence has kept tourists away in droves. Since the cease-fire, tourism has grown rapidly. In fact, it seemed about to boom--with more to be gained economically than lost environmentally--until the explosions of early July jolted the industry into a tailspin.

3. Those explosions were both metaphorical and literal. Even as peace struggled to be born, the guardians of sectarian suspicion hovered close at hand to snatch the newborn infant away. Instances were distressingly frequent:

- Even though Sinn Fein's past record of condoning terrorism has been repudiated by spokesmen at all levels of the Catholic church, Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, still resorts regularly to public threats of demonstrations, and more, if his demands are not allowed to dominate the negotiating process.

- Twice during the first week of July, Ian Paisley, Jr., who now works with his father to support the hardest-nosed Protestant unionism, exercised his family's genius for public provocation. Graduation ceremonies at Northern Ireland's leading university, the Queen's University, Belfast, are spread out over an entire week at the end of the academic year. At Queen's and elsewhere in the province, the issue of music at public gatherings has produced bitter debate. For years the British national anthem, "God Save the Queen," had been part of the music at Queen's commencements. After repeated protests from nationalists, and after the university's search for a universally acceptable alternative failed, it was decided this year to omit the anthem. That decision was a great offense to the most ardent unionists, who regarded it as a cowardly cave-in to republican pressure. To put the situation right, Ian Paisley, Jr., twice in commencement week provided his own tape-recorded renderings of the national anthem, once from a loudspeaker mounted on a car, which university authorities succeeded in keeping mostly out of earshot, and the second time at his own graduation ceremony (where he received a master of arts in political science) when, in the commencement hall, he stood to attention at the strains of the anthem coming from a tape recorder held in his own hand.

- Persistent difficulties remain in evening out cross-community inequities. Queen's, for example, has been perceived as Protestant, not so much because of legal standing as because of its Protestant past and because its faculty (though now quite secular) includes few Catholics. Recently the university has aggressively recruited Catholic students--too aggressively for some Protestants, not aggressively enough for some Catholics. The university has also acted affirmatively by hiring more Catholics as administrators, faculty, and staff. These moves engender all of the suspicion, mistrust, and aggrievement that the United States has experienced in similar efforts at racial affirmative action.

- On the religious front, the growing willingness of church leaders to speak out for peace is not always matched by corresponding sentiments in the ranks. At least one Presbyterian minister, for example, was spending part of his summer preparing his defense against a charge raised in the presbytery that he had violated ministerial vows by taking part in nonsectarian Bible studies with a Catholic priest.

In short, the months of peace have witnessed the beginnings of hope, but hardly the end of sectarian realities.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS AND CULTURE Review


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