From ............. National Catholic Reporter

September 9, 1994

page 20


When the British army was first brought over to defend the minority, it was greeted enthusiastically and with cups of tea by [Roman] Catholics.

A natural urge to hope leaps at the news that the Irish Republican Army has launched an indefinite cease-fire effective Aug. 31 [see news analysis, page 11]. People want to believe that this is the end of the 'troubles' and the beginning of peace, but history mocks such prospects. It is a time to take stock.

Optimism in the wake of the announcement by Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein was quickly muted by discordant voices. The declaration lacked the word 'permanent,' the British press noted suspiciously. The declaration was 'inadequate,' complained the Northern- Ireland Unionist leader. The Rev. Ian Paisley, who needs demons to keep his followers in his fold, fulminated about 'secret deals.' In Dublin, by contrast, the reception was more positive, while Britain's John Major wallowed in a sea of vagueness.

In each case it depends on where they're coming from, where they want to go and how much baggage they're carrying. Their diverse reactions drive home the impression that, though the IRA were in the eye of the storm, they were not the storm.

First of all, the conflict is hundreds of years older than the IRA. It is, therefore, complex. Mostly there are Catholics on one side and Protestants on the other, but it is not a religious conflict. It is, and long has been, about jobs and houses and who gets to stay home and who must emigrate and about the neighbor you know [your own denomination] being friendlier and worthier than the devil you don't know in Northern Ireland's largely segregated enclaves.

For 50 years after the division of Ireland in 1921, the dominant Unionist [mostly Protestant] majority exercised a refined system of discrimination. against-the one-third so-called Nationalists [read Catholics]. No outsiders came to the Catholics' aid in any meaningful way - neither the Vatican, nor Irish-Americans, nor the Irish Republic. When the Catholics, in the late 1960s, finally found the will to challenge the oppressive system, theirs was overwhelmingly, indeed totally, a nonviolent campaign inspired mainly by Martin Luther King and the U.S. civil rights movement.

The IRA was nowhere to be seen. The few members who still survived from earlier campaigns agreed to go down the nonviolent road. But spurred on by Paisley, Unionist extremists wreaked havoc, first on the protesters, then on entire Catholic ghettos in Belfast and other towns. The legend persists that when their Catholic neighborhoods were attacked and eventually burned down, the almost-extinct IRA had only one gun or two or three with which to defend their turf.

The police and part-time militia did not defend the Catholic population. Indeed, they actively took the other or Paisley side in confrontations. When then, the British army was first brought over to defend the minority, it was greeted enthusiastically and with cups of tea by Catholics who, frequently with good reason, feared for their lives.

The civil rights movement that began 25 years ago had modest aims - 'one man, one vote' and a little more. The governments in Belfast and London responded harshly, with the consequences we now know. Perhaps it would have come to this anyway- When an oppressed people gets a bit empowered, it usually forges ahead to full empowerment.

The thing is - To say, as some suggest, that the 'troubles' in Northern Ireland might be over because of the cease-fire is to bestow on the IRA a significance and centrality they themselves would hardly claim. There were many forms of opposition to Unionist oppression and British occupation in Northern Ireland both before the IRA and side by side with them, but the IRA usually grabbed the headlines. Violence usually does.

There was even something romantic about the IRA. Their original counterparts who fought early in the century had performed with great dignity and been rewarded in song and story. There were many young and not-so young idealists in the more recent campaign, some who died by hunger strike or otherwise, just as there were thugs and con men who got fat off the miseries of their own people, just as Protestant extremists did likewise, and military loose canons and venal military brass inflicted similar misery.

In other words, it's very complex. And it's not over - because the IRA was not the main event, merely a symptom .

Still, there's cause for joy and per haps even hope. And reason to be grateful to the many who worked tirelessly against great odds to move the ever-shifting ground to this ambiguous stage. And if the dust is allowed to settle, there is a field of dreams to be fulfilled in Northern Ireland.