The Peacemakers Of Northern Ireland -- People Playing Key Role In N. Ireland

CLOUGH, Northern Ireland - For as long as anyone can remember, Clough's curbs were painted the red, white and blue of the Union Jack. To Catholics, those colors snarled louder than shouts: "Stay out and be afraid."

On the afternoon of July 24, a 16-year-old Catholic schoolboy named James Morgan was hitchhiking home to a nearby town. A car filled with Protestants gave him a lift. The boy was never seen again.

They tortured and killed James Morgan, throwing his body into a Clough waste pit that held animal carcasses. The local milkman has been arrested in the killing.

For 28 years, such horrific deeds and the vengeance they inspire have fueled Northern Ireland's terrible war against itself. This struggle between Catholics and Protestants has been one of the international peacemakers' toughest assignments. This summer, Clough became one of their victories.

James Morgan's death came less than two months before official peace talks were scheduled to resume - talks that would take place only if the Catholic Irish Republican Army held the cease-fire it had called on July 20.

So James' killers could have set off the kind of retaliatory rage that would stop the province's first real chance for lasting peace. But this time the people of Northern Ireland did not take the bait.

The people of Clough were so anguished over being linked with such horror that a group of them began pulling down the town's Union Jacks. They stripped the curbs of paint.

Before they finished, the graffiti appeared: "Paint removers, we know you."

It was a warning from fellow Protestants. But Clough's residents didn't stop. Their answer to the threat will bloom next spring - a peace garden planted in honor of James.

The story of the Morgan family and the people of Clough is one strand in the blanket of healing and reconciliation that is being woven in Northern Ireland.

This summer was a particularly dangerous time of testing. But the blanket held.

The Troubles have taken 3,225 lives since 1969. In a province of only 1.6 million people, that toll is one that touches almost everyone in some way.

Ordinary people larger than life

Again and again, ordinary people have stood amid the rubble of bombs and turned from the bodies of the dead to transform a moment of terror into an image of peace.

One of those is the Rev. Alec Reid, a Catholic who knelt in the dirt to breathe life into a Protestant soldier who had been dumped - stripped, beaten and dying. He arose with his lips stained by the soldier's blood. He would become a leading voice for peace talks.

Before him was Protestant Gordon Wilson, who held his only daughter's hand as she died under a wall collapsed by an IRA bomb. That night he faced the world with words of peace. "I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge," he told a radio reporter. "She was a great wee lassie . . . and she's dead."

Until his death in early 1995, Wilson worked tirelessly to bring Northern Ireland's factions together.

Protestant Hazel Aicken was among those who had almost given up. She left the peace movement in exhaustion and despair after years of work that seemed "one step forward and two steps back."

But then Protestant gunmen broke into a Catholic home in County Armagh. They were looking for the family's father, whom they suspected of being involved in the IRA.

He wasn't there.

So they shot the pregnant mother instead. She bled to death on the floor while her five young children watched.

Aicken was in such anguish - knowing her own community was responsible for such cruelty - that she felt obliged to stand again for peace. Now she runs a retreat for victims of terrorism.

Weak medicine?

The peacemakers' work often seems weak medicine for a society as sick as Northern Ireland.

Many foreign-policy sophisticates are dubious about the power of grass-roots reconciliation. Dr. Kevin Boyle was once one of them.

When he co-wrote "Northern Ireland: The Choice" four years ago, he called the province's peace groups largely ineffective.

Today, with peace negotiations again under way in Belfast, Boyle has changed his mind.

"All the evidence is clear that, as we say, peace takes root in people's minds and hearts," said Boyle, professor of law and director of the Human Rights Center at Essex University in England.

Part of the peacemakers' success is that they understand something that treaty-makers sometimes forget: The battle is about more than power or jobs or land. It's also about identity, pride and history.

Northern Ireland is a province where symbols of differences - a flag, a color, a parade - are important enough to die for. So the peacemakers try to hold up new symbols.

Aicken was longing for such a symbol all one summer. So she sat in her garden cutting out thousands of white paper doves. "I had no idea how they would ever be used," she said. "It was one of those things you think God has told you to do."

When Canary Wharf was bombed in 1996, ending the IRA's first cease-fire, 200,000 people from both sides took to Irish streets demanding peace. Aicken's doves were in the hands of many, distributed by one of the province's peace groups.

Symbols of pride

The Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust is working on symbols of another kind, the symbols of history that have been such powerful forces for hate and fear. It sponsors groups trying to highlight parts of the province's past that Catholics and Protestants can take pride in.

Some people say Northern Ireland must let go of history, but that will never happen, said director Avila Kilmurray.

"We don't want to forget our history. It's too important to us. But our history is full of contributions from both sides," said Kilmurray, whose trust has distributed more than $38 million, much of it from the European Union, to 4,500 projects that promote peace and reconciliation.

Last summer, many people feared that full-scale civil war was going to erupt again around the so-called marching season, when Protestants parade through the Catholic towns that they once controlled. People who feed off violence seized the moment. Riots broke out around the Portadown parades. Two Protestant police officers were brutally killed.

But again the people resisted, not with violence, but with calls for peace.

On July 15, as 18-year-old Catholic Bernadette Martin was watching television in her Protestant boyfriend's home, a masked intruder entered the house. Bernadette, her boyfriend and his sister had fallen asleep in front of the television.

The gunman stepped up to the sleeping Catholic girl and shot her four times in the head point-blank. No one else was harmed.

She was the last civilian to die before the cease-fire. The Protestant man charged with killing her drank at the same pub she went to and had seen her across the room many times, said her mother, Margaret Martin.

No excuse for more killing

Her parents publicly begged that their daughter not be used as an excuse for more killing. "If her death meant the last death in Northern Ireland and it would bring peace, we could accept it better," Margaret Martin said. "I wouldn't want anyone to go through the grief and hurt we have."

Rita Restorick's 23-year-old son, Stephen, was the last British soldier to die before the cease-fire. On Feb. 12, 1993, he was chatting with a villager at an army checkpoint in the border town of Keady. A single shot through his flak jacket killed him.

On Sept. 15, when official peace talks started at Stormont, Britain's administrative headquarters in Belfast, Rita Restorick and other mothers of the dead sat before the doors of the meeting place with pictures of their children. They wanted their presence to say that enough killing has been done.

Among the most energetic and innovative of Northern Ireland's peacemakers are people who belong to a community called Corrymeela. Each year, thousands of people visit the lovely retreat in Ballycastle where Catholics and Protestants live together, trying to make Christ's philosophy of love a reality.

When a neighborhood blows up - Catholic or Protestant - Corrymeela workers go in to work with the young people. "We have to go in. If we tried to bus kids out, the paramilitaries would blow up the buses," said Alastair Kilgore, the center's 55-year-old director, who once did relief work in Africa and was a teacher in Belfast's toughest neighborhoods.

Corrymeela workshops break down stereotypes - that Catholics are all ginger-haired and superstitious, that Protestants are rich and cold, he said. They encourage each side to tell their stories. Then they nurture friendships between Protestant and Catholic kids who may have never known a single person from the other community.

After a few weeks, Catholic girls are asking Protestant boys home for supper in neighborhoods so segregated that each girl's parents have to meet the bus when the boy arrives because he isn't safe walking down the street.

Romance is often their ally. "You get kids who are 15 and 16 years old. They're interested in the opposite sex. We use that interest, and then," said Kilgore laughing, "we try to keep the interest under control."

One reason peace held this past summer despite all the anger and violence was an unlikely and little publicized coalition of former political prisoners who once devoted their lives to butchering and bombing one another.

Protestant Martin Snoddon is a big, 42-year-old redhead who served 14 years in prison after bombing a Catholic tavern where IRA soldiers congregated. There, he learned the wrongheadedness of violence.

Now project manager of the Ex-Prisoners Interpretative Centre, he was on the streets during this tense summer, giving young men advice he wished older men had given him. He told them that their community needed them - but it didn't need their violent acts.

"Sometimes you have to use a kind of hidden threat to get them to do something," he said. "We could usually convince them."

He convinces them, partly, through his own story.

The bomb Snoddon brought to the Catholic bar went off earlier than planned. Bloody and burning, the Protestant teenager was blown into the street. The IRA wasn't in the bar that night; the only person killed was a middle-aged mother.

The Catholic crowd outside began kicking and beating Snoddon. As they dragged him toward a place where he could be hanged, the police arrived. Once out of the crowd's sight, they, too, began beating him. They were Protestants, yes. But policemen, too. And he was a criminal now. "These were the authorities I was fighting in support of," said Snoddon.

That was his first lesson.

Like other prisoners on both sides, Snoddon began studying for a college degree. As he talked to other inmates, his political thinking developed, and he became more confident that progress, not destruction, was the way to help his community.

Another political prisoner, Catholic Liam Maskey, runs a North Belfast community group that set up hotlines and crisis response groups to make sure the occasional bar fight wouldn't escalate into a sectarian cause.

Catholic P.J. McClean is another former prisoner who now works for peace. While others who were interned without trial - as he was - turned toward bitterness and anger, he went the other way.

When British military interrogators finished with the 39-year-old Catholic father of seven, he said, even he didn't realize how badly beaten he was. But when he was taken to a new prison, the jailers who came to pick him up recoiled at the sight of him "as though I was some kind of injured animal," he said.

In the hospital, McClean thought of nothing but revenge.

Then he stopped.

"I realized I wouldn't be of assistance to anyone if I was full of hatred. I wouldn't be able to rear a family on hatred," he said.

Today he organizes fairs that attract both Catholics and Protestants and helps mediate when the Protestants march each summer.

Perhaps no other place in the world has drawn as many peacemakers working as doggedly as Northern Ireland has. Many of their efforts never make the news because most don't talk to reporters and are reluctant to grab credit.

At various spots through this province, combatants and politicians who publicly swear hatred come together secretly in the homes of peacemakers they can trust to keep their confidences.

"We listen," said one such religious worker who has been in Northern Ireland for years.

Talking builds trust

"And we try to help both sides listen to each other," said his wife. "The only thing that can really move people is if trust can build up and that doesn't happen if people can't talk to each other."

Often the efforts yield no direct results. The peace marches of 1976 and 1977 won Peace People founders Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan a Nobel Peace Prize. But the marches didn't end The Troubles.

Even so, they made a difference, said Martin O'Brien, of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, a group that works for equity in policing and justice issues.

"Killings were rising sharply before that, and ever since they've been falling off. We can't give the peace movement all the credit, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it," said O'Brien.

Like many others, he moved from calling for peace to pushing for political and judicial change that supports peace.

Both kinds of efforts are needed, said Catholic Brendan McAlister, director of the Mediation Network for Northern Ireland, which often serves as the bridge between grass-roots yearnings for reconciliation and the politicians who can fulfill them.

Peacemaking is a pyramid, said McAlister.

Political agreement is at the top of the pyramid and relies on the rest of the structure for support. Law and order must be established. Social and economic progress must seem a reality. But at the bottom of it all is reconciliation in the community.

Most people in Northern Ireland know that peacemaking can exact a high price. Catholic Paddy Doherty is one of them.

Doherty's pregnant daughter was sobbing in his arms when he heard the sirens and knew that his son-in-law was dead. The IRA shot the father of five in the back of the head after accusing him of giving police information that caused one of its members to be shot, Doherty said.

He believes the terrorists, unsure of who was guilty, saw the killing as a way to send a message.

"If Paddy Doherty's son-in-law could be shot, anybody could be," said Doherty, whose son was in prison at the time, suspected of working with the IRA.

The 72-year-old businessman is known throughout Northern Ireland for having rebuilt Derry after repeated IRA bombing tore the heart out of the city. He and moderate Catholic politician John Hume helped start a credit union that allowed Catholics who had never owned homes to buy them.

Almost 30 years ago, Doherty was an outlaw himself. He and his followers took over a central part of Derry, which is called Londonderry by Protestants and the British. They cordoned it off and proclaimed it Free Derry.

But as he matured, the Catholic boy from Northern Ireland's poorest slum, realized that peace would never come within a cordon.

Now jobs and housing, order and justice are his causes.

"Reconciliation will only come with growth. If you're stuck in the same place, you'll do the same things," said Doherty. "The surest avenue to growth is responsibility."

Not everyone believes

Not everyone believes the efforts of ordinary people such as Doherty can bring peace.

"We won't have peace until the British government is honest and makes the paramilitaries give up their guns," said the fiery Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, which controls about a third of the Protestant vote and is not in the peace talks being chaired by American George Mitchell.

On the other side and equally pessimistic is Dr. Raymond McClean, the first doctor on the scene when 13 Catholic demonstrators were killed on Bloody Sunday in 1972.

"The peace efforts have made no difference," said McClean, who was also Derry's first Catholic mayor. "Until the Protestants are willing to give up privilege, we won't get anywhere."

His longtime friend, Protestant Peter Hannon, listened gravely to his anger. "It takes more than `let's just all be pals together,' " said Hannon, a member of the international peace group Moral Re-Armament. He and his wife, Lady Fiona Hannon from Scotland, worked for peace for more than a decade in South Africa. Now they are befriending leaders in Northern Ireland to try to persuade this province to come to peace.

Peace talks going on in Belfast could break down any time. Many issues on the table seem impossible to sort out. But the peacemakers who work outside official channels are patient. They have been at work for decades. If the talks fail, they will keep working on the disagreements that doomed them. If the talks succeed, they'll keep working on the wounds that remain.

The most seasoned peacemakers are long past thinking that The Troubles, the pain that created them and the pain that has come out of them, will be banished quickly.

"You need a framework across generations," said McAlister, quoting one of his mentors. "For every decade of conflict, you need one hundred years of conflict resolution."