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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com
Still Divided Northern Ireland's Uneasy Peace


Questions on the Northern Ireland peace process for the Globe's Charles Sennott

Charles M. Sennott, a Globe correspondent based in Europe, reported from Belfast, Northern Ireland, for the Good Friday series. Boston.com readers were invited to pose questions to Sennott regarding the Northern Ireland peace process. Following are selected questions and Sennott's responses.


You mentioned a minor role for the EU in Northern Ireland, a territorial ambiguity involving two of its member states.

Could you now suggest a broader and deeper involvement by the EU in the resolution of what certainly seems, from every study by conscientious British investigators and jurists -- delayed, interim, etc. -- over the past few decades, to be a reluctance by Great Britain to acknowledge deception, fraud, and criminal behavior by its police, military, and intelligence service(s)?

It would certainly seem that the boundary walls erected to separate Catholics from Protestants (or is it republicans from loyalists?) are higher and more intimidating than those which separate EU member nations in the current era of mutual cooperation. And it would certainly seem that such relics are not acceptable in contemporary Europe.

James O'Neill
Portland, Ore.

Charles Sennott responds: The European Union and its courts of justice are increasingly playing a role in the legal questions of the day for member states, including the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. But there is still not the "broader and deeper involvement" of the European Union about which you inquire. The drafting of a new constitution by the EU is aimed in part at accomplishing that "broader and deeper involvement." But the final draft was only completed last month and now the respective governments are reviewing it. The impact of the new EU constitution, if and when it is adopted, on the legal establishments of the member states will be an issue to watch closely over the next year.

How is it that Gerry Adams, who has been associated with IRA violence in the past, is the face that Americans associate with the peace movement among the Catholic minority, while the SDLP holds a larger share of the Northern Ireland assembly and John Hume has worked tirelessly for a peaceful solution, being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work? Seems that very few Americans have even heard of the SDLP or Hume.

Timothy Gibson
Sterling, Mass.

Charles Sennott responds: This is a very astute observation and thank you for making it. It was in 2000 that John Hume stepped down from his post on the Northern Ireland Assembly as the representative for the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Then, on Sept. 17, 2001, Hume announced he was also stepping down as leader of the party, citing his failing health. That news came amid the fury of coverage on 9/11 and was little noticed. But Hume's absence from direct involvement in the peace process in Northern Ireland in the last two years has been greatly noticed by many of the key players we interviewed for this series. His quiet exit from the political stage has coincided with a pronounced shift in nationalist politics in Northern Ireland as the more overtly republican Sinn Fein party, headed by Gerry Adams, has gained votes. Many political observers believe that the gains for Sinn Fein have come at the expense of the SDLP. Had the May 29 election in Northern Ireland not been canceled by the British government, political analysts believe that Sinn Fein stood to gain even more political ground over SDLP. So in trying to capture that shift in the political landscape of Northern Ireland, we did, as you fairly pointed out, include more comment from the ascendant Sinn Fein than the waning SDLP. That said, SDLP certainly continues to play a critical role in the future of Northern Ireland and we will certainly be seeking out the party leaders' opinions on all matters.

Charles, great work on the Northern Ireland series - clear, informative writing. Does the Globe have any plans to do a series on the details of the South African Truth and Reconciliation process? I'd like to learn more about exactly how that went. Peace.

Paul J. McNeil
Spencer, Mass.

Charles Sennott responds: The Globe, as far as I know, does not have any plan to do a series on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But there is an active debate over its successes as well as its perceived failures and most major media organizations, including the Globe, have published stories about that. The broader idea of truth and reconciliation as part of a process for collective healing in conflict-torn lands is certainly one that is gaining momentum in the last decade. The "politics of forgiveness," as one writer called it, is an issue that I am interested in and hope to be following for the Globe.

When will journalists stop referring to communities here as only "Catholic" or "Protestant"? They are not the only communities that make up the population of Northern Ireland. It would be really helpful to the people of Northern Ireland if the media would begin to represent and reflect this part of the EU as a three-dimensional country; where a fraction of the citizens identify with one of two communities: residents (not only Catholic, Protestant, Nationalist, Unionist) who don't know how to let go of the past; and residents (not only Catholic, Protestant, Nationalist, Unionist) who want to embrace the future.

With due respect, it is a shame that one of North America's most widely-regarded newspapers would continue to report such an outdated and narrow view of this issue.

Laurie Roberts, former Bostonian
Belfast, Northern Ireland

Charles Sennott responds: You are correct to question the overly broad use of the terms Catholic and Protestant. In writing this series, we tried -- at times struggled -- to address the complex nature of the "two sides" of this conflict. The struggle came in balancing our approach with the fact that not all readers know the terms "republican" vs. "loyalist" or "nationalist" vs. "unionist." In an effort to give readers the background they need we offered a glossary of terms on the first day and in the copy we spelled out the beliefs to which each of these different political sub groupings hold. Beyond the political dimension of the two sides lies your belief in a "third dimension" in Northern Ireland. I think that dimension is reflected in the voices of the people who we interviewed and in the work of people like Gorman and Large and others who are working outside of the political process to find ways to put an end to violence. So at the end of the day, your question highlights precisely the dimension in which this story attempted to look at Northern Ireland five years after the Good Friday agreement. It sounds like you think we failed. All we can tell you is it wasn't without trying.

I found your series to be an excellent overview/summation of the present situation in Northern Ireland, particularly the focus on the importance of grass roots community efforts to ultimately achieve peace. I have repeatedly heard the words "fed up" from friends in Northern Ireland (Derry, Enniskillen) when asked of their opinion of the present political efforts on behalf on the peace process. You touched upon this in Part 1 of your series.

Given the present state of affairs with the cancellation of the elections, a rejection on the latest IRA statement, and the problems facing Trimble in the UUP, did you find much hope, enthusiasm, or appreciation for that matter, from the families you met in the efforts and abilities of their leaders to ultimately achieve peace? Or, in their opinion, will the ultimate peace be achieved through the efforts of people like Tommy Gorman and Noel Large?

Sean Moynihan
South Boston, Mass.

Charles Sennott responds: What we found in talking to people in Northern Ireland was a great reluctance to admit the extent to which things had actually changed for the better in the five years after the Good Friday agreement. The political crisis and the lingering violence seem to cast a cloud over the considerable accomplishments of Good Friday. But then when you press people about their lives, you can almost see them stop and back up for a minute. And when they do that, most seem to agree that life is undeniably better than it was. This was not always true in the so-called "interface" areas where the violence continues to flare. But even there you could hear hope. That hope I think was reflected in the comments by the two women we profiled in the first day of the series from opposite sides of the Springfield Road's "peace wall." My sense is that the efforts of people like Gorman and Large are not widely recognized. There is a reason for that -- what they achieve is essentially keeping Northern Ireland out of the news. That is, if they work all day on mobile phones to stop a riot, then few people know just how hard the two men worked to allow life for everyone else to go on as normal. That is why in this series we tried to highlight the quiet work that so many are doing -- outside of the political realm -- to achieve peace in Northern Ireland. We found so many examples of this and unfortunately were not able to highlight all of the different groups and organizations working in the shadows of the "peace walls" and elsewhere to make life better for everyone.

I am about to embark on a two-year assignment in Belfast (at the Institute of Governance at Queens University), and so I have been paying close attention over the past few months to the news about Northern Ireland. Your series seems to reinforce all that I have read and "heard/seen" regarding the ongoing "Troubles."

My own limited observation is that there are three major factors that provide some hope for a more enduring "peace": (1) the strong economic boom that seems to endure despite some major "hits" (e.g., plant closures); (2) sustained support for the Good Friday agreement efforts from "outside" forces such as the UK, ROI, EU and US; and (3) the "maturing" (aging?) of those most involved in the Troubles. I know you have commented a bit on each, but I wonder if you come away from your assignment with an "overall" positive or negative outlook for the future of the region.

M.J. Dubnick
Beverly, Mass.

Charles Sennott responds: Please see the answer to the previous question as it covers much of the same terrain. But to answer your question, I guess I came away with an "overall" positive outlook for the future. But consider my perspective on this as a correspondent whose last posting was in Jerusalem (1997-2001.) There I watched along with my other colleagues the peace process collapse back into the bitter and bloody cycle of violence. It was stunning and horrifying and depressing to watch two sides -- on the edge of peace in July 2000 at Camp David -- suddenly plunge into the "intifada" by the end of September 2000. (In just the last three years as many people have died in Israel-Palestine as died in 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland.) I do not see that kind of dramatic collapse of the peace process happening in Northern Ireland. Why? Well, in part because -- despite the current political crisis -- the major players have bought into the terms of Good Friday and have thereby established a working -- even if suspended -- mechanism to build a future together without resorting to violence as a way to get there.

All of this said, I also think it important for journalists to highlight not only the successes but also the shortcomings of the process. And we did that in this series. But it should be noted that when we highlight the failures we do so with the intention of enlightening readers and perhaps pushing the powers that be to address the problems that have led to the current political crisis and that could threaten the Good Friday agreement if they are not soon addressed. Again, coming to this posting from the Middle East keeps it fresh in my mind just how quickly the dialogue can collapse and return to the language of violence.

In light of the reported collusion between the British government and Ulster forces, and the incredibly slow change in the police force, whatever they call it, would not an independent force, such as the UN, be needed to be effective and believable in Northern Ireland? Even Canada is suspect in the current revelations. A final and just resolution supported by all sides, armed as they still are, would require a truly unbiased participant. Preemptive action, if necessary because governments won't request help; the world has waited long enough. England won't do it. I am of English descent, by the way.

Pauline Barker
Derry, N.H.

Charles Sennott responds: In my recent travels, I never heard anyone call for United Nations peace keeping forces in Northern Ireland. I did hear a fair amount of frustration, like the frustration you express, about the glacial pace of change... But probably the most common voice was one of apathy, a sense of "Who cares?" If you go into a club in Belfast where a young crowd is gathering one of the most un-cool topics you could bring up would be the "peace process." There is a growing class -- Protestant/unionist and Catholic/nationalist -- that just wants to get on with its life. In historically disenfranchised Catholic/republican enclaves like the Falls Road or the top of the Ardoyne Road people seemed to have a long view, an understanding that there are important changes underway and that they now at last have a voice in government. In the Protestant/loyalist enclaves of Belfast, there was a great deal of worry, a sense of losing their identity. They strike me as the most concerned about the process and where it is headed. But their frustration is not with the slow pace, but what they see as a wrong course in which they feel Northern Ireland's traditions under the British crown are threatened.

Do you feel that the Good Friday Peace Agreement will eventually lead to a full and lasting peace while the radical parties and their leaders, such as the Sinn Fein (Adams) and the DUP (Paisley) are still involved?

Buck Alleck
Franklin, Mass.

Charles Sennott responds: There are astute observers of Northern Ireland who would turn you question around, and say that the Good Friday peace agreement can not lead to "full and lasting peace" without Adams's Sinn Fein and Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party. That is because the two men and their parties reflect large, even growing constituencies. It is believed by political analysts that had the May 29 Assembly elections not been canceled by the British government, that both Sinn Fein and the DUP stood to make significant gains in the Assembly. The more centrist parties of the SDLP and the UUP were expected to see their representation in the Assembly diminished. There is a widely held belief that holding off on the elections only postpones an inevitable political clash between these two parties at the opposite ends of the political spectrum. The calculation by the British government seems to have been that Northern Ireland's nascent democracy is too fragile to handle that clash right now. But there are many observers here, especially leaders in Sinn Fein and the DUP, who believe the elections have to come soon to allow that inevitable clash to take place. If it can be a clash of ideas in a political forum rather than a clash of paramilitary forces in street violence then the Good Friday agreement will have succeeded and all sides in Northern Ireland will find themselves that much further down the road to peace. The question now is what will the British government do about the elections? Will it, as is widely expected, announce a date for an election to take place in the fall? And if it fails to do so, could the political vacuum be filled with violence?

I'm curious about the demand for the IRA to disarm. Has there been an equivalent pressure on the Protestant paramilitaries to disarm? The failure of the IRA to turn over its weapons is blamed for the failure of the Good Friday accord, but your own stories indicate that the unionist and loyalist militias still openly display weapons. Am I missing something? Thank you.

Bruce Mastron
Holly Hill, Fla.

Charles Sennott responds: You have put your finger on a hot-button issue. Under the auspices of the British and Irish governments, the decommissioning process is overseen by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning headed by the retired Canadian General John De Chastelain. So far, the IRA has carried out two acts of decommissioning but the precise details of the process have so far been kept out of the public view. The British government and the Ulster Unionist Party have criticized the IRA for failing to carry out further "acts of completion" such as full decommissioning of its weapons and coming out with a more clear statement that its military campaign is over. The Sinn Fein party, which is aligned with the IRA, has said that the British government has focused on the IRA's obligations while failing to live up to the British military's obligations to dismantle the heavy military presence it has put in place in Northern Ireland. Although some British army observation towers and old barracks have been torn down, Sinn Fein says the military forces remain pervasive, especially in border areas such as South Armagh. Sinn Fein has also said that there has not been enough pressure on the loyalist paramilitary groups to turn over their weapons. That the loyalists still hold their weapons is made clear not only by the fact that they openly brandish them during the marching season but also by the murderous feud between the rival loyalist factions that has killed dozens of members in the last three years. At the end of the day, even officials involved in decommissioning concede that the process of surrendering arms is largely symbolic. The reality is that even after huge caches of weapons are put beyond use, either side of the conflict could obtain new weapons if it wanted to. In a recent interview, an official knowledgeable of the decommissioning process said, "What matters most is the political solution. Once that is in place, the weapons become irrelevant."

Why is it that the Protestants are allowed to march through the Catholic neighborhoods? It seems to me that by marching through those sections, these marches, which symbolize Protestant victories over Catholics, would be a deterrent to the peace process.

Manchester, N.H.

Charles Sennott responds: The parade routes during the Protestant marching season have become one of the more volatile issues in the political process. But it should be noted that there are more than 3,000 parades in the long marching season and that the vast majority are held peacefully.

Some of the traditional Protestant marching troops, such as the Orange Order, have maintained that their parade routes are handed down through generations and that they have the right to continue them even when they pass through Catholic enclaves. Community activists in the Catholic enclaves where the parades pass through say the parades have long been intended as a form of Protestant "triumphalism" and that in light of the new future in Northern Ireland they need to be changed. Under the agreement, a Parades Commission has been empowered to make rulings on which routes will be approved. In many places, they have changed the routes or ordered the marching bands not to play music as they pass through Catholic areas. A great effort by activists from both sides has been put into defusing the explosive nature of these parades, and it seems the efforts are paying off. Just last week, the Drumcree march near Portadown which has historically been a flashpoint was held without any violence. And the Springfield Road parade, as we reported in our series, also came off this year with far less violence than previous summers.

How can peace ever be achieved in Northern Ireland, when very few of the participants understand the process by which the perpetual state of hostilities was created? The Catholics learn a version of Irish history in school that is far from inclusive. The Protestants learn English history. Still, the results of these long ago and unknown events are quickly learned today. I'm just back from Northern Ireland where I met a woman from Canada, who told me a very sad story. She was taking her 3-year-old son to shop in Portadown, and he seemed to be having a difficult time picking out a hat. She suggested that he wear his green one. He told her that he didn't want to wear that one, because when he did, people looked at him funny.

Marjorie Harshaw Robie
Ipswich, Mass.

Charles Sennott responds: Your question points to one of the biggest challenges that lies ahead for Northern Ireland. That is the integration of its schools and its communities. As we wrote in our series, Northern Ireland is still deeply segregated -- especially its schools. The Church of England and the Roman Catholic church have a long and deep history of establishing schools and controlling the curriculum. They are not likely to give up that control without a fight; nor should it be assumed that Protestants and Catholics want them to. There are many members of both the Protestant and Catholic faiths who we interviewed who said they prefer their children to be educated in schools that reflect their own faith. Martin McGuinness, a self-described former IRA commander and now Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, is the minister of education within the now-suspended Assembly. In an interview in Derry, McGuinness outlined some of his plans to increase the choices that people would have to put their children in secular and integrated schools or religious institutions. "The key aspect is choice for parents," he said. But all of those efforts, as he pointed out, are on hold while the Good Friday institutions of the power sharing government remain suspended.