Give Peace Another Chance

Though the IRA Cease-fire Has Been Shattered, BC Faculty Say There Is Hope for Peace in Northern Ireland

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

When the 17-month Northern Ireland cease-fire ended abruptly last month, the aftershocks traveled all the way to the Boston College community.

The University had shared in the optimism sparked by the truce, hosting appearances in late 1994 by Catholic politician and peace-maker John Hume - who also spoke at the 1995 Commencement and was on campus Tuesday evening - and Northern Irish Protestant and Loyalist representatives. Last week, as negotiators worked to revive the peace process, University faculty experts discussed the political machinations behind the cease-fire and the London bombings by the Irish Republican Army, and the prospects for rekindling the hope so abundant a year ago.

The parties in the conflict may not be exactly right back where they started, faculty said, but they still have serious social and political issues to resolve once the negotiations scheduled for June begin. For now, they say, it may be best to appreciate the small steps forward than to expect giant strides.

"The bombings were a terrible event, but one and a half years of peace after 25 years of war is a significant achievement," said Irish Studies Program Co-director Assoc. Prof. Kevin O'Neill (History). "The peace process is not doomed. I suspect the IRA is not going to set off bombs right and left. This was a tactical decision on their part to prevent an ultimatum from the British they did not want - that they would have to lay down their arms before anything could happen."

Irish Studies Co-director Kevin O'Neill

"The IRA is a complex and confusing organization," said part-time faculty member Raymond Helmick, SJ (Theology), who has served as a mediator in the conflict. "They've never had a way of allowing their civilian leadership to make decisions. For Gerry Adams [president of Sinn Fein, the so-called IRA political wing] to convince them to renounce military means for so long is a colossal achievement."

Part-time faculty member Raymond Helmick, SJ (Theology).

Fr. Helmick and O'Neill acknowledge the difficulty in analyzing the inner workings of the IRA, or its exact relationship with Sinn Fein. Last week, for example, even as Adams warned the IRA was prepared for another 25 years of war, Sinn Fein negotiator Martin McGuiness said his party might be willing to urge restoration of the cease-fire to the IRA. But the evidence strongly suggests, they agreed, that the IRA had planned the series of bombings for some months.

While some observers have theorized that a new, more hard-line IRA regime - one less willing to work with Adams or McGuiness - came to power during the cease-fire, O'Neill and Fr. Helmick feel it is more likely that the existing leadership decided it could not rely on the peace process. The IRA perceived, with some validity, that the British were dragging their feet in an attempt to create divisions within the organization, the faculty say, and Prime Minister John Major's call for elections in Northern Ireland prior to all-party talks apparently confirmed the IRA's worst suspicions.

"The IRA feels it is an army at war and a cease-fire in a war doesn't mean you give up your weapons," O'Neill said.

As terrible and indefensible as the IRA's actions were, O'Neill said, there was at the same time a hint of restraint in them. Had it chosen, he said, the IRA could have arranged bombings far deadlier, which fuels speculation that the attacks did not constitute an all-out resumption of hostilities.

As critical as the role of the IRA is, Fr. Helmick said, it is the participation of the Unionists which may hold the key. Unionists have largely sat on the sidelines during previous initiatives involving the IRA, and British and Irish governments, he said, and have shown a great reluctance to join in any process they feel might lead to a total unification of Ireland. The IRA must demonstrate respect and sensitivity in its dealings with Unionists, Fr. Helmick said, which presents a difficult task.

"There must be an agreement on what the objective is," he said. "How do you reconcile Unionist and Republican Ireland? By having one swallow the other, or by coming to mutual acceptance and mutual guarantees? Does everything get done in one action, or is there a process? These were all tough issues back in 1921, when the original Anglo-Irish treaty was signed and touched off a civil war, and they haven't gotten much easier."

John Hume, meanwhile, has emerged as a heroic if tragic figure, O'Neill and Fr. Helmick said, his efforts to begin the peace process seemingly repudiated. But after the recent IRA bombings, Hume - leader of the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labor Party - quietly worked behind the scenes to help reconcile the parties and arrange the June talks. He also suggested a simultaneous referendum be held in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to affirm support for a peace process.

"This was an extraordinarily difficult time for Hume," O'Neill said. "But as always, he's tried to find a way forward and get both sides looking at possibilities. I don't see his referendum idea drawing much support from the Unionists or the Republic, but it is important we have other sounds besides the noise of bombs and threats being heard."

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