PIT STOP

Here’s Neil with his column in the Senior Times

Pit Stop

Look to Northern Ireland for a way to peace in Middle East

The recent outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland seemed at first like a black cloud threatening the fragile peace process. Until the silver lining appeared.

What happened after two British soldiers and an Irish policeman were murdered by a discredited IRA dissident group is almost unimaginable. The forces that had been at each other’s throats for decades came together to publicly denounce the killings.

Thousands of people, Catholic and Protestant alike, took to the streets to express their outrage and abhorrence. And the republican splinter groups who have claimed responsibility have been roundly condemned by the mainstream republican organization, Sinn Fein. Martin McGuinness, deputy first minister in the power-sharing executive, stood shoulder to shoulder with the protestant first minister, Peter Robinson, to condemn the killings: “We were elected to lead and, through democratic institutions, deliver for everyone throughout the community. We will not allow a tiny mindless minority to set our political agenda or divert us.”

McGuinness called those responsible “traitors to Ireland” and urged Catholics to cooperate with police in catching the culprits. Such an unambiguous display of support for the Northern Ireland Police Service from the leadership of Sinn Fein is unprecedented. As the London journal The Tablet wrote: “Twenty years ago they would have been plotting the killing of soldiers and policemen themselves.”

Those responsible for the bloodshed plainly intended to destroy the power-sharing structure of the Assembly at Stormont and escalate sectarian tensions across the community. However, the response from politicians and even more importantly from ordinary citizens, who took to the streets in significant numbers at short notice to support vigils and peace rallies, made clear that any attempt to turn back the clock on the peace process would not be tolerated.

These public displays were followed by the unprecedented image of Catholic republicans and Protestant loyalists attending the funeral of Stephen Carroll, the murdered Ulster police officer. In a highly personal address at the end of the service, in the presence of Carroll’s widow, the head of the Police Service, Sir Hugh Orde, told her:

“He will not be forgotten, Kate. I promise you. My staff and officers will not forget what he did. I know the community will not forget what he did.”

The hard fact is there will be no united Ireland for the foreseeable future. But the blinkered IRA dissidents refuse to recognize that. They first demonstrated their hostility to the peace process when they planted a car bomb in Omagh in August 1998 that killed 29 people in the main shopping street. (I walked on this street in a trip to Ulster a couple of years ago. The Omagh blast is still fresh in the minds of the citizens there).

Undeterred by the hostile reaction, pockets of disgruntled republican activists throughout Northern Ireland vowed to defy majority public opinion, re-arm and revive “physical force” republicanism as the traditional and only effective means they could see of ever achieving a united Ireland.

For a time there was nothing much more than propaganda stunts with armed, hooded figures on manoeuvres in remote Irish boglands. From time to time police on both sides of the border intercepted arms and explosives in transit to a planned atrocity. The dissidents suspected that the mainstream IRA was double-crossing them by infiltrating its own people into their ranks to betray them.

But several well-planned ambushes over a year ago, in which police officers were wounded, underlined the growing dissident threat. Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde warned that the dissidents were intent on killing a police officer, a grim prophecy that has now been fulfilled.

Still, tragic as the killings were, what remains is the virtual universal condemnation of them in Ulster by the ordinary people and their elected leaders. Remember these same leaders had been fighting each other for decades. Now they are united for peace, an extraordinary accomplishment and a way forward for others.

It is no coincidence that U.S. President Barack Obama chose as his new envoy to the Middle East the very man who played a large role in bringing the warring Irish factions together in the Good Friday Agreement. Former democratic senator George Mitchell now brings his negotiating skills, honed in Ulster, to building peace between Israel and the Palestinians, whose enmity is perhaps the most dangerous in the world.

But the peace process in Ulster is a paradigm for a similar development in the Middle East. There are dissimilarities of course, but if the hard men in Ulster can unite for peace, so can those other warring factions – the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The peace process in Ulster points a way to peace in the Middle East.

The Senior Times

Pit Stop April 2009

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