The U.S. should remember that peace in Ireland required steps toward justice

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I can’t help but notice the similarity between the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1977 and the police force charged with serving and protecting the people of Ferguson, Missouri. Unfortunately, the similarities between Northern Ireland then and far too many places in the United States now don’t end there.

I attended a peace conference in Northern Ireland in 1977, and to this young American, it felt like a police state with the RUC’s armored presence in Catholic neighborhoods. The SWAT division that met protesters the first night in Ferguson looked like an occupying army.

In 1977, there were only a few Catholics on the RUC, even though Catholics made up 35 percent of Northern Ireland’s population. African-Americans constitute almost twice that number (67.4 percent) in Ferguson, yet only 4 of 53 cops are black.

Catholics regularly accused “security” forces of shooting unarmed young Catholic men. The young man shot in Ferguson was just one of at least four unarmed black men who died at the hands of police in the United States in the last month alone.

I came to understand that the lack of equality for Catholics — primarily in employment opportunities and policing — lay at the root of the so-called “troubles.” The deeply entrenched hatred in Northern Ireland for the Catholic minority then mirrors an attitude among many white Americans that persists toward the black minority today.

The high unemployment rate for young African-Americans, the military gear and interventionist attitude brandished by local police forces and the inability or unwillingness of authorities from local, state and federal levels to address even basic imbalances — like jobs on police forces — looks horrifyingly reminiscent of the inability or unwillingness of Britain to provide equal treatment to Irish Catholics in 1977. It confirmed their worst suspicions and provided paramilitary organizations with plenty of recruits.

Northern Irish peace marches initially seemed like a good idea to me. But in a short time, I recognized that there would never be peace in the North of Ireland without rectifying the power imbalance between the two communities. The Good Friday Agreement brokered by the United States between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland in 1998 accomplished this. Now can the United States broker one here? Without our own determined steps toward justice, there truly can be no peace.

TOM O’BRIEN
Mt. Lebanon


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