BELFAST, Northern Ireland – President Clinton will encounter a precarious political climate when he visits Northern Ireland next month. But it will a less dubious atmosphere than the one he experienced on his last trip here in November 1995.
After a summer of standoffs and stalemates, what holds the historic Good Friday agreement together today is the scab of misery, violence and bloodletting that has scarred virtually every corner of Northern Ireland for several months – a handful of tragedies so gruesome and inhumane they just might beget peace.
It turned out to be an interesting summer for a class of 11 GW students who spent three weeks studying conflict resolution in the fatalistic political atmosphere of Northern Ireland. In fact, it was one of the most violent seasons here since the beginning of the Troubles thirty years ago.
The Royal Ulster Constabulary – the heavily-armed, no-holds-barred police force in Northern Ireland – recorded 1,867 public disorder incidents, 550 attacks on security forces and 548 petrol bombings. More than 100 homes, businesses and churches were damaged. And that was in just the 11 days we were in the North.
Strangely enough, the closest we came to any danger was our final day in London, when Scotland Yard rounded up nine people from a dissident IRA group just minutes before they were to have firebombed nearby Euston Station. For the class, it was roughly equivalent to being a resident of Crawford Hall and having a near conflagration at the Foggy Bottom Metro station.
The tension that permeated Belfast during our arrival stemmed from a Protestant tradition that dates back hundreds of years. Each summer, the Protestant Orange Order holds more than 2,500 marches in Northern Ireland. July 12 marks the most important day in the Orange Order’s marching season – the commemoration of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, when Protestant King William of Orange defeated Britain’s last Catholic king, James II.
Violence is common at the Protestant parades that course through Catholic neighborhoods, and the debate rages between Unionists who say Protestants have the right to march “the Queen’s highways” and Nationalists who say triumphant marches through their neighborhoods are disruptive and driven by bigotry and hatred.
David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, who two years ago made his political name by leading the Orange charge down Garvaghy road, staked out new territory for his party this summer by acknowledging the legitimacy of the Catholic opposition to the parade.
“We’re dealing here with a conflict of rights. There’s rights on both sides,” Trimble told The Boston Herald in July.
This summer, as in past years, the rallying cry for the Orange Order was Drumcree. There, in the town of Portadown, about 30 miles west of Belfast, Drumcree Road snakes up a hill on one side, passes the town’s Protestant church atop a peak surrounded by fields, and winds down the mound on the other side as the Garvaghy Road, crossing a small creek before it burrows into a Catholic neighborhood.
Each year on July 12, Protestants march up their side of the hill, attend church services and parade down the opposite side into to the tune of their triumphant pipes and drums.
And each year, the Catholics come out on their lawns and throw stones at the marchers yelling “Brits out!”
This year, as part of the Good Friday peace agreement, a Parades Commission instructed the RUC not to allow the parade to pass through the Catholic section on Garvaghy Road in the interest of preserving the peace.
The Orange Order balked, and spent two weeks camping out in the fields of Drumcree, preparing to storm the barbed wire barricades and water-filled trenches that had been constructed by the British Army to separate the two sides.
After more than a week of nightly rioting and civil unrest across Northern Ireland, it looked like July 12 might become – in the words of one Protestant leader – Tony Blair’s Bloody Sunday.
Earlier in the week, the First Paratrooper Regiment of the British Army was deployed across the fields at Drumcree, staring down at the thousands of Orangemen who had assembled there, determined to reiterate their pride in King Williams’ 1690 victory over the Catholics.
Disembarking from enormous troop transport helicopters hovering feet off the ground, the paratroopers rekindled memories of the unit’s infamous reputation for its role in the Bloody Sunday massacre in which British troops opened fire on Catholic protesters in Londonderry, killing 14.
On the climactic evening, our ferry from Scotland pulled into Belfast Harbor, past the Harland and Wolff Shipyard where Catholics and Protestants had worked together to assemble the Titanic three-quarters of a century ago. A rough-looking man wearing a cross (typically a Catholic symbol in Northern Ireland), told me that for fifty years, Catholics were denied employment at the Protestant-owned company.
As Peter Taylor, author of Behind the Mask, told us, “Discrimination stemmed from the political, economic and social conditions in which the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland lived. Catholics often only had to mention their name or address to guarantee rejection. At Harland and Wolff, out of a workforce of 10,000, only about 400 were Catholic.”
When my conversation with the local turned to the purpose of our visit, his eyes bulged in amazement that someone would willingly come to Northern Ireland on July 12 to experience the Troubles firsthand.
His advice: “Catch the next train south when the violence spreads across the city.” Although the vast majority of people here voted overwhelmingly to endorse the new political arrangement outlined in May’s Good Friday Agreement, the 29 percent minority constitutes fervent extremists on both sides of the divide.
It was these factions that were pushing the agreement toward implosion in the middle of July, until a tragedy so terrible that nearly all of Ulster recoiled from the politics of intimidation and impasse.
Early on the morning of the 12th, a group of Protestant extremists hurled a petrol bomb through the window of a home in Ballmoney, a town outside of Belfast. Jason, Mark and Richard Quinn – ages nine, 10 and 11 – were burned alive, simply because their Catholic mother had dared marry a Protestant.
It threw a bucket of water on the smoldering tinderbox.
After more than a week of equivocation over the increasingly militancy of the Orange Order who were still threatening a bloodbath if they were not permitted to march at Drumcree, shocked Protestant leaders across the community searched their souls and called for an end to the stand-off. A sense of grief and shame doused the flames and the Orange marches of the next day proceeded, subdued by a community ashamed of its role in the tragedy.
Since then, Northern Ireland has seen the deadliest bombing in its history, as well as continued apprehension and discord over the marching season and prisoner release issues that are key to the peace accord.
On Clinton’s last visit to Northern Ireland, he called upon Catholics and Protestants alike to tell those who would use violence for political objectives that their thinking is of the past, and its day is over.
After last week’s deadly bombing in Omagh, it is clear that while an overwhelming majority of Northern Ireland wants peace, a few still seek to terrorize and intimidate. It is foolish to think their day is over. And peace hangs in the balance.