BELFAST-Dispatches from the peace process are gloomy and downright alarming. There is talk that all the optimism of a year ago, and all the political gambles that have been taken on both sides of the Irish Sea and both sides of the Atlantic, may be for naught. Men with bombs, guns and a grievance still operate in this city, and they seem intent on returning to the days of army patrols and barricades and car bombs.
At the same time, the people of Belfast are getting used to peace, and, not surprisingly, they like it. While Belfast still has awful poverty and religious-based injustice, it is benefitting from a genuine peace dividend that promises to bring desperately needed investment into this rusting relic of the Industrial Revolution. There’s a new five-star Hilton Hotel near the city’s main rail terminal, and the Europa hotel- once one of the most-bombed buildings in Europe-has been transformed into a delightful, business-friendly jewel. Shops, pubs and businesses along Great Victoria Street speak to the downtown area’s new prosperity.
Those who wish to turn Northern Ireland back into a battlefield are not taking into account the collective will of people who have been liberated from fear and disorder. They will not tolerate a return to the way things were. They have known peace for the first time in a generation, and they are not about to stand idly by while rogue paramilitaries attempt to wreck the peace.
A year ago, the people of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic voted overwhelmingly in favor of peace. The gunmen and assassins speak for nobody, for no cause other than violence for its own sake. The horrible assassination of the attorney Rosemary Nelson, who represented nationalist clients and who was killed by a car bomb within sight of her daughter’s school, was designed to provoke a response from the Irish Republican Army and thus end the province’s peace. There was no response; but three children have been robbed of a mother, a husband of a wife. Similarly, Loyalists who support the peace process did not react in kind when a dissident I.R.A. faction blew up the town center of Omagh last year, killing more than two dozen passersby in Northern Ireland’s worst atrocity.
It has become commonplace to refer to the Irish peace process as fragile, but the description clearly is wrong. It is sturdy, it is stout-hearted, it is determined. Otherwise, it surely would have been broken into a thousand pieces after Omagh, after the bomb that killed Rosemary Nelson. Strong men and women, some of them former paramilitaries, have seized a historic opportunity, and they are not about to let it slip from their grasp.
I have visited this city five times since 1985; this is the first time I have not had a gun pointed at me. The British army patrols that were once so conspicuous have disappeared, or at least they are much more discreet. During past visits, I’ve tried, no doubt unsuccessfully, to act like a jaded New Yorker as soldiers fanned out all around me, keeping me and other passersby in their gun sights as we passed. In 1991 I brought along my wife, the granddaughter of a Catholic run out of Belfast’s shipyards nearly a century ago, because I thought she ought to see what it was like. We took a ferry from Scotland and were on Northern Irish soil no longer than 10 minutes when soldiers marched into the ferry terminal, took up positions and aimed their weapons. Never for a moment did I feel unsafe, but I certainly was intimidated. At my wife’s suggestion, we have since chosen more idyllic locations for family holidays.
Of course, these days one of those idyllic locations could be, yes, Northern Ireland! It has always been a beautiful place hidden by war and oppression. With the guns quiet, the bombs put away and troops almost invisible, it is heartbreakingly lovely.
That is not to say that the province’s injustices have been resolved, that the ugliness of sectarian hatred and divisive politics has been banished like the snakes of old. In the town of Portadown, where the Orange Order will soon be banging its Lambeg drums to celebrate the victory of the Protestant King William III over the Catholic King James II in 1690, ugly graffiti announce the religious makeup of its segregated neighborhoods. Loyalist paramilitary organizations are saluted with slogans in Protestant neighborhoods, and the I.R.A. is immortalized with spray paint in Catholic areas.
Clearly there is work to be done. And it is, in fact, being done. Some of the Irish peacemakers-the two Nobel Peace Prize winners, John Hume and David Trimble, along with Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, and Loyalist leaders like David Ervine and Gusty Spence-have put their reputations and perhaps even their lives on the line. Others, like British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds, President Bill Clinton, former Senator George Mitchell and the former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith, have demonstrated that courage and determination can make a difference. The people here appreciate what has been done for the sake of their future and their prosperity.
I have often quoted the observation of the political writer Richard Reeves that thanks to the Reagan Revolution of the 1980’s, economics has replaced politics in many places throughout the world. Until recently, many believed it was naive to think that Northern Ireland could undergo such a transformation. Yet it is happening. Sure, some cultural purists will grumble when they see a gleaming American franchise outlet rising from the rubble of Belfast. Sorry, but that’s real progress.
The people won’t stand for anything else.