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In pursuit of peace & reconciliation

Northern Ireland

Climbing the ladder of peace: 70 per cent of Northern Ireland's people voted for the latest peace agreement.


We all flee at that moment – the grandmothers, the fathers, the priest, the dogs, even the most plucky of the kids. With a camera bouncing around my neck and against a pounding heart, I race with that panicked crowd across the marshy lawn. The source of our fear – the masses of orange-sashed marchers – had suddenly surged, while yelling to the tunes of a military band, towards us.

Between the advancing Protestant/Loyalist marchers of the Orange Order and the minority Catholic/Nationalist community standing outside their local St Joseph’s church is a line of Royal Ulster Constabulary police who face the marchers. The Catholic/Nationalists are monitored by a human wall of soldiers in black riot gear with shields, helmets, batons and guns. Logically, it is clear that with armed British men occupying every bit of space between the thousands of marchers and a few hundred residents, it is impossible for the two groups to come to blows. But the fears of what had happened in the past and what could happen in the future fuse together in an explosion of hysteria.

It is ironic but true that each warring faction in every armed conflict around the world, sees itself as a victim of injustice fighting for its rights

The marchers could not go any further than the line of riot-geared men at the head of the Garvaghy Road in Portadown, Northern Ireland. Of course earlier that day, 19 December 1998, it all seemed like a game – the residents singing ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’ over the beats of the Orange Order marching band; bursting into laughter at a puppy which scampered around the feet of bewildered soldiers and their German shepherds, yapping defiantly; or the stories about a guy dressed up as Santa Claus on Craigwell Avenue with a question to the Orange Order taped onto his chest: ‘Do they know it’s Xmas?’ But the reality is that these laughs are a temporary break in concentration as people chain-smoke, bite nails, fidget and drink bottomless cups of tea as they wait for the violence to come back into their homes again.

The Catholic/Nationalist minority in Portadown has been forcibly expelled from the town centre by gangs. They have had their homes razed to the ground and Catholic/Nationalist-owned shops and the local gas station have been attacked. Most of these incidents occur on the same days as the marches. At one recent rally the Grand Master of the Orange Order, Robert Saulters, called for the leader of the Garvaghy Road residents’ committee to be ‘taken out’. From 5 July to 3 December 1998 there were over 130 Orange Order demonstrations in Portadown, the vast majority of them illegal.

Have you spotted the bias in this article yet? Excuse this not-so-uncommon break from journalistic tradition. For I knew, as I stood in the Republican Milltown cemetery in Belfast, that it was impossible for me to be objective about Northern Ireland. Reading the headstones, I realized that people lived the ‘troubles’ from their cradle to their grave. The older gravestones frequently say things like ‘Martyred for his faith’, whereas newer ones are inscribed with political meaning – such as the many who were ‘Murdered in their home’. And as I stopped at another gravestone for a mother ‘and also her children who rest in Brisbane, Australia’, it seemed like those who had passed were reminding me of my good fortune to be born and live in a country with politics, not war.


Although I was saddened by the senseless loss of life that lay beneath my feet, I could not help but feel angry at the British Black Hawk helicopters circling like noisy vultures over my head. These reminded me that I abhor British human-rights abuses conducted during its troubled rule of Northern Ireland and in many now-free places around the world; that I am disgusted at its rapidly expanding arms sales to the Majority World. Each whirr of the helicopter propellers made me appreciate the chance to be able to vote for an Australian Republic, and strengthened my desire for the survivors of the Troubles at least to be able to assert their status as more than just a colonial offshoot and have the power to determine collectively their own future.

A mural not far from the cemetery shows Republicans alongside other ‘revolutionaries’ such as Che Guevara. The Aboriginal Australian flag is a prominent part of the collage of international resistance. But my sympathies with the Republican movement and other campaigns – from the Western Sahara to West Papua – do not include support for the kind of violence I saw in the Catholic/Nationalist-dominated city of Derry. I was as appalled by the intimidation, violence and prejudice against the minority Protestant/Loyalists as I was by the treatment of Catholic/Nationalists in Portadown. Here too the minority community are scared to shop in the centre of town or go to the central pubs. They have also been intimidated out of their homes and feel discriminated against by local authorities.

I begin to understand how this feeling of victimhood is manipulated by groups such as the Orange Order. Catherine, a worker representing the Protestant/ Loyalist community at Derry’s Peace and Reconciliation Group, explains: ‘Loyalists say Protestant Alienation is happening here, in Derry. If young Loyalists want to go to university, they go to Coleraine. I went to the tech college 18 years ago and was intimidated and I won’t let my kids go there. There are no jobs for kids. They’ve been unemployed so long they have a joke, they say: “Unemployment is hereditary – my father had it, my grandfather had it and so I have it.” Bars and pubs in town are one-sided. Protestants don’t come over the bridge after five. So the Protestants see the Orange Order as them; it could be me or you standing there in Portadown with people telling you to get off the street. In the Loyalist housing estate the majority of these people have never been to Portadown or Drumcree yet they are out on the streets rioting about it. They say if the marches don’t happen we’ll be on the road to a united Ireland.’

It is ironic but true that each warring faction, each armed killer, in every armed conflict around the world, sees itself as a victim of injustice fighting for its rights. And despite what ‘side’ I may sympathize with in Northern Ireland or any other conflict, I cannot condone the use of murder, intimidation and terror.

While conflict is an inevitable and creative force, violence is horrific and destructive. And so I support peace – which Johan Galtung defines as ‘nonviolent and creative conflict transformation’ – _at all costs_. Republicans and Loyalists have become the victims of common enemies: violence, fear and death. And, as Tanya, Catherine’s Catholic/Nationalist co-worker, points out: ‘We’ve only got a million-and-a-half population in Northern Ireland. We can’t afford to be apart from each other.’

The active optimist – Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire.


I am surprised at just how divided many communities remain. Catherine and Tanya admit that the breakdown of the first ceasefire created a lot of distrust. People are still reluctant to go out of their own community and are sceptical about what these new peace agreements will mean on the ground. And people say the newly elected Northern Ireland Assembly members have lost touch with what people need. ‘The Assembly is like an episode of _Men Behaving Badly_. It’s like a sitcom,’ agree Catherine and Tanya. Maureen Hetherington, from Derry City Council, says: ‘They’re not talking about what they should be in the Assembly – health, education, infrastructure, unemployment. I’ve got three children and the Assembly has no relevance to what I want for them – peace, employment and education.’ So each day that the Assembly members engage in narrow political point-scoring and refuse to compromise on issues such as marching and reform of the police endangers the peace process even further.

For peace to be real, people need to see it on the streets and in their own lives. In Belfast Vincent McKenna, from a support group called Families Against Intimidation and Terror, is appalled that the same groups involved in human-rights abuses have seats in the Assembly. He tells a joke about a group of Swedish journalists who came to interview him in the week David Trimble (Ulster Unionist Party leader) and John Hume (head of the Social and Democratic Labour Party) were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: ‘They asked me if I was having a party because of the Peace Prize! I said: “No, I’m not having a party! I’ll tell you what I’m having...”.’ He goes on to list statistics: in 1998 there were 32 shootings by Loyalists, 37 by Repub-licans; 83 beatings by Loyalists, 79 by Republicans; the number of families forced to leave their homes due to intimidation increased; 646 children were subject to human-rights abuses by organizations party to the peace process. Combined with the Omagh bombing and actions of other terrorist organizations, this means that around 1,000 children were subject to human-rights abuses in 1998 alone.

Standing together – Tanya (left) and Catherine from Derry's Peace and Reconciliation Group.


These incidents must be stopped for peace to proceed. But where a perpetrator is also a victim, many believe that getting ex-fighters into politics is the only way to go. Tanya says: ‘You have to be careful to avoid being sucked into the apathy trap. If you get enough people to say the peace process is happening, then it is happening – you get to a situation where it is much harder for these people to walk away from the Assembly.’

The basic starting-point of peace – just getting people from different backgrounds in the same room to talk to each other (let alone to attend the same school or church service) – is new to many parts of Northern Ireland. Before leaving Catherine and Tanya, I get out the camera. ‘Can you stand a bit closer to each other?’ I ask.

‘I’m not going near her; she’s a Protestant,’ says Tanya narrowing her eyes.

‘And she’s a Catholic!’ exclaims Catherine in mock horror.

Amidst the scepticism, the jokes and the fear is the unfailing optimism of Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of Peace People. She says clear vision is what’s needed: ‘The Unionists are looking to the United Kingdom, the Nationalists are looking to Ireland. They need to turn around and start looking at each other.’ And she believes the two communities can have a common Northern Irish identity based on their history of 70 years separate from Ireland and 30 years of the Troubles: ‘I get a sense that together we can solve the problems.’

'The Unionists are looking to the United Kingdom, the Nationalists are looking to Ireland. They need to turn around and start looking at each other'

Her faith is founded in the people that have been working for peace since the beginning of war. Often they were the women. At the door of Mairead’s office, waiting to be packed up and sent away, are black-and-white photos of demonstrations – framed memories of women’s struggle for peace. ‘It was amazing. Ordinary unpoliticized women came out on to the streets and became politicized,’ says Mairead. ‘And of course women keep the peace in the schools, in the churches. It would be a tragedy if the enormous role women have played in the peace process was written out of history.’

Seventeen years after her sister’s death, Mairead wrote about Anne Maguire’s history. Anne’s is one of the many graves I visited in Milltown cemetery. She is buried there with her three children, who were killed in a clash between the IRA and the British Army on Finaghy Road in North Belfast – four years before Anne took her own life in 1980. On the stone is inscribed: ‘They died so others might live in peace.’

Mairead writes: ‘Danny Lennon, a 19-year-old IRA man, was shot through the head by a British soldier. His car swerved onto the footpath killing three of Anne’s children.’ Anne herself was not expected to survive the accident but did survive. ‘Her broken legs and pelvis meant months of learning to walk again. One of her first outings was the Falls Road Rally where she read the Declaration of the Peace People. She also went to visit Mrs Lennon, saying that “she lost her child too”.

‘Anne never saw her children buried. In her own mind she refused to accept their deaths. She would often talk about seeing them playing in the garden. Their deaths and the brain bruising she suffered resulted in psychotic depression. Anne became a troubled soul.

Violence is not inevitable. Indeed, the unwritten history of the world may be the history of things we have not fought over

‘We were told that as she was a “determined suicide”; we could only pray and watch out for her. Finally, a painful, slow, lonely death on a bitter winter’s day: Anne’s spirit flew away to join her little angels in heaven.

‘I have told the story of Anne not to make anyone sad, but to give everyone hope. The story of Anne will be told long after all of us have gone to be with her. But let those who tell it, tell of her compassion, her courage, her joy, and above all her love for her family. We don’t believe that Anne has gone from us, we see her and feel her presence with us all the time. I am certain that her wish for us all is: End the violence forever – _siocháin_ – peace.’

Now Mairead sees her sister’s wish beginning to come true. She applauds Hume and Trimble for their role in leading their own parties towards peace. And she says the outside help of Prime Ministers Blair and Ahern and particularly US Senator Mitchell were very important to obtain peace.

Mairead says while the two major problems of Northern Ireland – poverty and violence – have yet to be tackled, she is thankful for the progress that has been made so far. With a deep exhalation she pauses and looks up at another photograph resting against her office wall. ‘You know Aung Sun Su Kyi?’ she says. ‘She’s inspirational. When I get tired, I look up at her. I hope that Burma can have the all-inclusive dialogue we have here.’ Dialogue with the military regime? Yes. She believes that people ‘have a goodness’, as Ong Ju Lynn describes (see [_Eye to eye with SLORC_](http://www.newint.org/features/1999/04/01/burma/)).

Reaching Towards Peace & Reconciliation

Peace is a revolutionary process that transforms conflict from violent to non-violent forms. The finishing-line of a peace process is reconciliation – the point at which we are reconciled with one another and the past.

There is no single formula that can be replicated in any part of the world. But to reach reconciliation, peace processes must take the following routes:

Violence is not inevitable. Indeed, the unwritten history of the world may be the history of things we have not fought over. Even Northern Ireland, which has become synonymous in many people’s minds with violence, has its own history of non-violence – the Irish gave the English language the word ‘boycott’ and it was peaceful Irish protests over land that inspired Gandhi, watching from London, to protest non-violently for the rights of Indian people and the poor.

A group of notable scientists and psychologists has endorsed _The Seville Statement on Non-Violence_. This states that there is no scientific evidence whatsoever that humans have a ‘violent brain’ or are genetically programmed to kill each other. No other species does. People in the 135 violent conflicts in the world today learn to respond violently to certain stimuli and suppress their ‘goodness’. They can learn non-violence instead. And we can all work to address the factors that stifle this goodness, to make space for peace to proceed and ultimately to allow reconciliation to occur. Internationally, nationally, locally and individually peace is possible using the right ingredients (see _The Road to Peace & Reconciliation_).

Peace is not a moment in time or a period of passive activity following a ceasefire, but a revolutionary process that transforms conflict to non-violent relations. The world has tried violence to achieve its objectives for decades. Now, despite our technological and economic progress, we have a world plagued by small wars – where 95 per cent of casualties are civilians and 90 per cent of these casualties are caused by guns and small arms. We have a world where millions kill their neighbours, their fellow nationals, those within the firing range of a few metres. There are no winners in this kind of war.

Before boarding the plane to leave Northern Ireland, I buy the papers to see if there is much news of the Orange Order protest I had witnessed the day before. The front pages are filled with stories on Clinton and Blair’s pre-Christmas bombing of Iraq. These leaders of rich nations are the only victors of war – those who do not have to look in the face of the people they kill, those who cannot recognize their victims. Unless we challenge this kind of autocratic power, unless we contest the violence that lies within our own cultures, unless we end militarization and uphold human rights, we will always be chased by fear – just as I was on that day in Portadown. Peace requires individual and collective commitment. We must start running in the opposite direction – towards reconciliation with one another and the past. It is not exactly a 100-metre sprint, more like a marathon. But the prize – an end to injustice, hurt and fright – must be magnificent. So come on: On your marks, Get set, Go!

New Internationalist issue 311 magazine cover This article is from the April 1999 issue of New Internationalist.
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