Yearning for Peace in Ireland

The recent Irish-British Downing Street Peace Declaration, coupled with the extravagant American media-hype of Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, has encouraged a revolution of rising peace expectations worldwide and, especially, in the United States. But if such expectations are to be helpful to Ireland, then the majority views of Irish people who actually live in Ireland must be given center-stage.

In particular, it must be borne in mind that most Irish people reject violence and are utterly opposed to its paramilitary and military sponsors. Irish people (91 percent in the most recent poll) believe that the Downing Street Declaration—the peace initiative from the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland that calls for separate votes in the north and the south and for the Irish Republican Army to renounce violence—is a fair basis for immediate peace. An equally impressive majority believes that Sinn Fein and the IRA have had time enough to respond to the opportunities now on offer.

This yearning for peace is not new in Ireland. Christian pacifists have long been its advocates and have contributed significantly to an Irish sea-change in attitudes to violence. Of course, Irish bigots remain shrill and get unmerited publicity; and the institutional church often fails in ecumenical witness. But less publicized is the way in which mainstream lay and clerical leaders have displayed a moral discipline and willingness to work across the denominational divide.

Indeed, as far back as 1977 the churches in Ireland wrote, "We find unanimously that there is no justification in the present situation in Ireland for the existence of any paramilitary organizations. It follows that we see no justification for the campaign of bombing and killing being carried out in Northern Ireland, in the Republic of Ireland, and in Britain." In the years since, some groups in Ireland, in the words of one eminent Catholic leader, "have been more cruel, more hurting, more unkind to one another then any invader could ever be."

But, equally, the experience of those years has demonstrated the futility of violence and has underlined the necessity for Irish people of all traditions to work together. London and Dublin, too, have recognized that they share a common concern in having Ireland at peace.

BUT THE DOWNING Street Declaration is about much more than violence. It is about replacing "old fears and animosities by a climate of peace." Such phrases represent a historic change in Anglo-Irish relations, climaxing in new initiatives that seek to accommodate current realities and future developments in a well-balanced package of community healing proposals.

What is now on offer is a declaration of intent that recognizes that the Northern people, Catholic and Protestant together, should decide their own destiny. In addition, the peace declaration recognizes that a decisive majority of all religions in Northern Ireland look now to the creation of a united Northern community based on parity of esteem between the main traditions, so that they can get on with the primary task of rebuilding their battered community.

Currently the shared hope is for agreed structures of regional government, based on responsibility and power-sharing. Important links between London and Dublin that reflect wider relationships are also envisaged. Taken together, these assurances give room for the creative expression and development of both traditions in Northern Ireland, constitute a threat to neither, and represent an attempt to set aside uncertainties and suspicions rooted in outmoded colonial relationships.

So though peace is still in the balance, a new climate has been created that uniquely challenges divisive notions of nationalism and unionism. Peacemakers look to the emergence of a new alliance between peoples, offering a new framework for reconciliation within Northern Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and between the islands of Ireland and Britain.

Building confidence will not be easy. But for the great majority of people in Ireland, there is hope that a new chapter in North-South relations is beginning, holding forth the dream of a Northern Ireland at peace with itself and at ease with its neighbors. Beyond the strife lies the promise of renewal.

DAVID BLEAKLEY, a former Labour member of the Northern Ireland Parliament and minister of community relations in the government of Northern Ireland, is president of the Anglican Church Missionary Society and Irish convener of the "Christianity and the Future of Europe" movement.

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