tampabay.com

In Ireland, a roadmap from terror to truce

Thirty years of violence has evolved into a political settlement, but Irish Catholics see parallels between themselves and Palestinians.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published March 19, 2006


BELFAST, Northern Ireland - Sun and snow vie for control of the weather as a guide with the distinctly Irish name of Caoimhin Mac Giolla Mhin points out legacies of the "Troubles."

Here is Divis Tower, the ugly high-rise from which British soldiers used to spy on Catholics living along Falls Road. And St. Comgall's Primary School, scarred by gunbattles between Protestants and Catholics. And the memorial garden, honoring those who made the "supreme sacrifice for Irish freedom."

Then, unexpectedly, allusions to a far-off conflict.

Free Palestine. Boycott Israeli goods, reads one wall mural. Our day will come, vows another in Arabic and Irish.

"We bring Palestinians over here to explain what is happening in our country," says Mac Giolla Mhin, who organizes "political tours" of Belfast. "We have common issues, relationships have developed."

For years, a bond has existed between two relatively small groups that have captured a huge amount of world attention. Mac Giolla Mhin and 750,000 other Catholics in Northern Ireland want to end British rule and unite the province with the mainly Catholic Republic of Ireland. And 3.8-million Palestinians want to end Israeli occupation and establish their own state.

Something else the two groups have had in common: the use of violence to achieve their aims. Since 2000, Hamas and other Palestinian organizations have killed more than 1,000 Israelis.

Over three decades, the Irish Republican Army, a Catholic paramilitary group, shot and blew up some 1,800 people, most of them Protestants in Northern Ireland. Then in 1998, the IRA's political wing - Sinn Fein - vowed to work for peace and agreed to a historic power-sharing deal between Catholics and Protestants.

Today, Northern Ireland is largely quiet and Belfast, its handsome capital, is thriving. Almost everyone agrees there's little likelihood of a return to the "Troubles."

"I don't want me kids going through what I went through - police stopping you, searching you and all that malarkey," says John O'Neill, a Catholic barman.

"We don't have a peace process. Peace is here and the economy is booming," says Brendan Mullan, who runs Belfast's redevelopment agency. "What we're in the process of finalizing is the political process."

Could the changes in Northern Ireland presage what might happen in the Mideast, where Hamas won January elections and now controls the Palestinian government? Despite the group's fiery rhetoric and calls for Israel's destruction, some experts think Hamas, like Sinn Fein, could eventually renounce violence in favor of a political settlement.

"The evidence is quite hopeful," says Adrian Guelke, a professor of comparative politics at Queen's University in Belfast.

"Sinn Fein is the political outgrowth of a group of people committed in the first instance to violence, but there is evidence that involvement in the political process has changed their behavior. Likewise, Hamas is a group feeling its way into politics."

The solidarity with Palestinians was evident at a recent Sinn Fein conference, Women in International Struggle. Among the speakers: a young Palestinian. Among the flags: that of the Palestinian Authority.

"Sinn Fein believes in the right to self determination and obviously that includes the people of Palestine," said the group's leader, Gerry Adams, as he posed for pictures.

"We want to see the conflict in the Mideast settled through dialogue. There are situations where conflicts appear to be intractable, but we proved in our situation that's not the case."

Others are skeptical. Despite the progress, Northern Ireland is hardly an exemplar of conflict resolution. The power-sharing deal collapsed, partly over doubts about the IRA's willingness to give up its weapons. Protestant paramilitaries, meanwhile, are so involved in organized crime that one newspaper dubbed their leaders the "New Godfathers."

Drug dealing, smuggling and counterfeiting are rampant. Last year, the value of fake DVDs and other items seized in Northern Ireland exceeded the total for England, Scotland and Wales combined.

Like Israelis and Palestinians, Catholics and Protestants here continue to view each other with suspicion. And many distrust Northern Ireland's police force, which has battled both groups.

"I genuinely don't think we'll go back to war as such," says Gary White, who heads the police district in tough northern Belfast. "But as commander for this area, I don't need to go back to war to be worried."

"A con job?'

Faced with growing rebellion, Britain decided in 1920 to split its Irish colony in two: an independent state in the south and a smaller, mainly Protestant area in the north that remained part of the United Kingdom.

Protestants, or "unionists" as they are known, owned most of the major businesses including the huge Belfast shipyard where Titanic was built. They had the best jobs, the best housing, the best of everything, as the Catholic minority saw it.

"My grandfather was ushered out of the shipyards," says Mac Giolla Mhin. "Our people were attacked on a daily basis, people had hammers dropped on them. Employment was for the unionist population."

There were complaints of housing discrimination: unmarried Protestant women getting big houses ahead of Catholic families with several children.

Decades of anger erupted in sectarian rioting in 1969, and swelled support for the IRA and its guerrilla attacks on British soldiers and police. On Jan. 30, 1972 - "Bloody Sunday" - British paratroopers killed 13 unarmed Catholics and accelerated a cycle of violence that would last nearly 30 years.

Among the many spectacular IRA attacks - including one in England that nearly killed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984 - were many smaller ones that made life a dice roll in working-class areas of Belfast.

"The troubles reflect class," says Mina Wardle, a Protestant who runs a nonsectarian counseling center. "Some classes never heard a shot, never heard a bomb going off. It was in the particular class where you had poverty and deprivation."

One IRA bombing killed a close family friend. Another killed a neighbor and badly damaged Wardle's hearing. Yet another destroyed her husband's supermarket.

Still, she acknowledges Catholics had legitimate grievances. "Nobody denies it - history will tell you there was discrimination."

Realizing they could not win militarily against the British, Catholics turned to the political arena. On Good Friday 1998, Sinn Fein, other major parties and the British and Irish governments agreed to create a Northern Ireland assembly in which Catholics and Protestants would share power.

The assembly lasted less than three years before the British suspended it in 2002 over allegations of republican spying.

There were other incidents that raised doubts about the commitment to peace: the 2000 convictions in South Florida of an IRA member and three others for illegal weapons. The 2001 arrest of three IRA members for training Marxist rebels in Colombia. And a $53-million bank robbery in 2004 that police blamed on the IRA.

"I voted "yes' for the Good Friday agreement but now I think it was a con job," says Lindy McDowell, a Protestant and a Belfast Telegraph columnist. "What we've done with terrorism in Northern Ireland is institutionalize it."

To help spur the peace process, the United States no longer lists the IRA as a terrorist organization, and the republican movement continues to enjoy substantial support from Irish Americans. This year again, Gerry Adams was invited to the White House St. Patrick's Day party although he had to share the spotlight with two women who believe the IRA murdered their brothers. McDowell wonders if the Bush administration hasn't felt pressure from those who think America is "soft on white Christians and harder on black Muslims."

"I have this view of terrorism that it's not a box of chocolates where you pick the ones you like. Aside from a global network, there is a loose network where they all learn from each other. Has Osama learned from Irish terrorism that you can go so far and then go into the political process?"

Last summer, the IRA announced an end to its armed campaign. The independent commission monitoring the peace agreement says the group no longer is a terrorist threat and seems to be "moving in the right direction."

However, unionists still balk at joining a government with republicans, casting a shadow on the assembly's future. As in the Mideast with Hamas' ascendancy, Northern Ireland's fate rests with political parties at opposite extremes.

"Their whole raison d'etre is demonizing the other as a way of mobilizing votes," says Stephen Farry, a leader of the nonsectarian Alliance Party. "I have great difficulty seeing how they would actually do a deal and how that deal would stick."

Though major terrorism has stopped, both Catholics and Protestants are engaged in what some call "low-level nastiness." An IRA splinter group was blamed for rioting in Dublin last month that injured several police offers and scuttled a Protestant march.

Authorities say the main IRA has grown rich from illegal activities, including the manufacture of fake Smirnoff vodka and "dodgy diesel" - agricultural diesel doctored to run in cars.

The IRA "tried to bomb Ireland, now they're trying to buy it," says Lindy McDowell's husband, Jim, an editor with Ireland's best-selling paper, the Sunday World.

The paper has also done exposes of Protestant paramilitaries, now considered more dangerous than their Catholic counterparts. A reporter was murdered in 2001 and McDowell has had numerous threats, including one so serious he and his wife went to Florida and another that forced them to send their son to Spain to escape a kidnapping plot.

While civic leaders and even many residents say life has improved greatly since the Good Friday agreement, distrust between Catholics and Protestants is still apparent.

Aggressive recruiting has boosted the Catholic makeup of the police force to 19 percent, from 8 percent, but many Catholics still see it as pro-British.

"If I joined it, I couldn't live in this area because Catholics don't like the police," says O'Neill, the bartender.

In Protestant areas, homes proudly fly the British Union Jack, and residents wonder what the IRA is doing with all its money.

"Are they getting more weapons, because they're not putting it in the community," says a taxi driver who gave only his first name - Roy - "because me being a driver, I'm vulnerable." A few hours after he spoke, Protestant paramilitaries nearly killed another driver.

But there are positive signs. Since 2003, Mac Giolla Mhin has run his tours in conjunction with Protestants or "loyalists," as he calls them. The goal is to publicize the plight of political prisoners on both sides, who were released as part of the peace agreement but have limited rights.

"I never thought I'd be working with loyalists," says Mhin, a Sinn Fein member. "It was a pleasant surprise."