The trouble with the Irish
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As the toora-loora lunacy of St. Patrick's Day recedes into hangover legend, it's useful to consider where things now stand in that corner of the island where, in the words of songwriter Paul Brady, "we sacrifice our children to feed the worn-out dreams of yesterday."
For most Americans, "The Troubles" were a vague drama that had something to do with Catholics fighting Protestants or, perhaps, Irishmen fighting Englishmen. To the extent anyone here paid attention, the dispute ended in 1995 when the IRA declared a cease fire and President Bill Clinton visited Belfast and lit the town Christmas tree.
Cue the Celtic music, zoom in on smiling children and dim the lights.
President Clinton's Irish strategy, with its relentless diplomacy, White House visits, mild unpleasantness with the British government and startling (at the time) decision to reach out to Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, smacked of a dreamer digging at a dry hole. Futility seemed assured.
When the strategy succeeded it led to the creation of a compact called The Good Friday Agreement, and later an elected assembly for a province that had not governed itself since 1974.
There was a brief interregnum of self-governance, and an enthusiasm for cooperation that startled all sides. Martin McGuinness, an old IRA gunman who dropped out of school at 16, became education minister. David Trimble, a hardliner from the triumphantly anti-Catholic Orange Order, became first minister and, for that matter, shared the Nobel Peace Prize with John Hume, an ex-seminarian.
Things fell apart amid demands that the IRA disarm or Sinn Fein be blocked from the government (it did, they were anyway). The British suspended the assembly in October 2002 and, since then, moderation, such as it was found in the North, has faded from political discourse. Once again, the Irish of the North have politics without policy. Elections continue to come and go and voters elect members to an assembly that exists as a theory, but does not sit. In this environment, Sinn Fein has eclipsed the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party as the largest party appealing to pro-Irish Catholics.
On the pro-British, Protestant side, the Ulster Unionist Party has been displaced by the Democratic Unionist Party, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, a man who can only be fairly described as a loud bigot who yearns for the old days when he stood up in the European Parliament to denounce the visiting Pope John Paul II as the antichrist.
What Mr. Clinton proved was that diplomacy can work among people susceptible to it. In the Middle East, the populations have long fought as proxies for other nations and their values: the Palestinians for Syria and, increasingly, Iran; the Israelis for the West. That sort of diplomacy won't take away the urge of the background players to promote further discord when it suits their strategies.
But the people of Northern Ireland have no one to fight but each other. Each presumed sponsor, Britain and Ireland, would be just as happy to be rid of them. The question of whether the six counties should be reunited with the adjacent Republic, or remain a part of Great Britain, seems less and less of interest to the Irish themselves. In 15 years of visiting both the North and South, I have found little interest among citizens of the Republic for things Northern. In Belfast, I have noticed young people referring to themselves as Europeans, as if the tribal customs of both sides have become an embarrassment.
In short, Northern Ireland is a place where diplomatic intervention can work because the people there would really like to have things resolved and, notwithstanding the Great Christmas Tree Lighting of 1995, and the seeming end to The Troubles, Ulster is far from settled.
Every year around this time, Irish politicians, North and South, make the rounds in the United States, pleading their cases with a population whose inattention to international affairs is surpassed only by their government's capacity to dictate the world's agenda.
This year, Pittsburgh received Patricia Lewsley, who currently chairs the Social Democratic and Labour Party.
Given peaceful Ulster's shift to the hardliners at the ballot box, it is hard to tell whether the DUP and Sinn Fein are getting more moderate or if the voters of Northern Ireland are becoming more polarized, I suggested. She laid out a much more plausible theory than either of those.
Without a real assembly, it's easy to vote an impulse. Only the most avid will bother to vote.
"People aren't going to come out and vote for something that isn't in existence," she said.
This makes sense and it's why the United States should be reaching out, however awkward it might seem, in ways to steer the North back to a working democracy. Part of the problem, of course, is that the United States has forfeited much of its legacy as an international arbiter by going to war in Iraq against international consensus. The larger problem, though, lies in the Bush administration's tendency to pay lip service, while doing little else.
The distance here is best measured by asking how many people have heard of Mitchell Reiss. He's the White House envoy. His predecessor, George Mitchell, was able to get things done because he had a president behind him who genuinely wanted results.
The Bush administration most recently banned Sinn Fein from raising funds in the United States, a largely symbolic act, given that the party has so locked in control of its base in West Belfast that it has little need to worry about insolvency. The real danger here is that, if the Bush administration thinks money for Sinn Fein might become money for the IRA, it has done as much to assure that as the Prohibitionists of the 1920s did to guarantee an empire for bootleggers.
It is as if nobody remembers the days when groups such as Irish Northern Aid acted as a funnel for cash to the armed republican movement. Leonard Wibberly, an Irish author of the last century, once observed that if you want to guarantee the Irish will do something, make it illegal.
If the administration wanted to move things off dead-center, it would perhaps be wise to forbid the Rev. Paisley, his son and his deputy, Peter Robinson, from visiting the United States. The Rev. Paisley, especially, has reveled in his visits to his alma mater, Bob Jones University, and the congregations of his growing Free Presbyterian Church. Lean on that man a bit, shut him off from the adulation of America's least tolerant branch of Christianity and it might get his attention about tending to matters at home.
Back at home, of course, in the words of another Irishman, William Butler Yeats, "the center cannot hold." If it does not, the hard men of each side, Loyalist paramilitaries and old IRA gunmen, will become weary of inflicting terror on their own communities and begin to look across the internal boundaries of the cities where a fight is never terribly far from starting.
Five years ago, they could look at each other across the aisles of a parliament building. With some help on this side of the Atlantic, they could again.
First Published March 19, 2006 12:00 am