Safe Haven for a Dialogue in a Dangerous Time

Safe Haven for a Dialogue in a Dangerous Time

BC hosts controversial forum on Northern Irish police reform issues

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Not every university conference takes place under the specter of death threats. Thus, a recent Irish Institute gathering devoted to police reform in Northern Ireland was more than academic.


Participants in the recent Irish Institute program on Northern Irish police reform paused to relax at a reception held in Burns Library. (L-R) Joe Byrne, Social Democratic and Labor Party member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board; Irish Institute Director Mary O’Herlihy; Nuala O’Loan, police ombudsman for Northern Ireland; Center for Irish Programs Executive Director Thomas Hachey and his wife, Jane; and Ian Paisley Jr., Ulster Democratic Unionist Party member of the policing board. (Jet Photography)
The Northern Ireland Policing Exchange Program hosted by the Irish Institute Sept. 13-28 gave 28 participants from across sectarian lines in Northern Ireland a neutral ground for dialogue on an issue sparking terrorist threats back home.

The week delegates were meeting here, news came from Northern Ireland of a death threat against the senior Catholic on the civilian board overseeing the reform of the predominantly Protestant police force there. Irish Republican Army dissidents opposed to the peace process threatened to kill Denis Bradley, a former priest who is vice-chairman of the 19-member Policing Board in Northern Ireland.

IRA dissidents also were blamed for burning the car of a local police-board member in Co. Tyrone, and the month before, mailing another board member in Derry a death threat in the form of three bullets and a Mass card.

A campaign of intimidation has been launched against Catholic members of community police partnerships that have been formed in Northern Ireland in the interest of police reform, one of the major goals of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord.

"Among the many initiatives undertaken by our Irish Institute in support of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, none is more important than the policing program which is an essential element in the reconciliation effort," said University Professor of History Thomas Hachey, executive director of the Center for Irish Programs at Boston College.

"At the moment, militants in the two major communities are opposed, for different reasons, to the reform proposals under consideration. What the institute did, according to participants from all of the parties attending the program here, was to provide a venue for a productive exploration of the options in a dialogue that it would not have been possible to have in Northern Ireland."

Participants at Boston College included policing board operatives from Belfast and Derry, among other Northern Ireland districts, and political representatives from the republican Social Democratic and Labor Party and the loyalist Democratic Unionist Party. The latter was represented by Ian Paisley Jr.

"The Irish Institute tries to be an honest broker," said Director Mary O'Herlihy. "We certainly hope people were able to talk to their colleagues, and have a reflective space they don't have at home.

"These discussions could not have taken place in Northern Ireland at the same time they took place in Boston because of the intimidation.

"The most striking thing was the courage of some of these participants. To do something publicly, as they have done, is very courageous."

The participants from Northern Ireland were introduced to the Boston model of community policing in meetings with Boston police officials and with Dorchester community leaders, including Rev. Eugene Rivers and Rev. Ray Hammond.

"They were interested in the role played by church leaders like Rev. Rivers in acting as conduits, because of the sad history of Northern Ireland churches not taking on such roles," O'Herlihy said.

The Northern Ireland contingent was struck by the ease with which "one reverend can pick up the phone and call another" in Boston, said Irish Institute Program Coordinator James Evans. "They hope to replicate in Northern Ireland that informal network of communications, apart from political rhetoric."

The visitors also were guests at receptions hosted at the Parkman House by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and at the Burns Library by Hachey.

The program at Boston College was hosted jointly with the group Mediation Northern Ireland, which will continue meetings with the participants back in Ulster.

 

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