When I was growing up, I was always afraid of violence. northern Ireland was a European centre of politically-motivated killing for most of my childhood. Politicians and public officials were killed all the time. Political activists who espoused violence were often killed too. And people who had no direct involvement in either politics or violence were caught up in it, going about their business, killed in bus stations or pubs or on the street. Nearly 4000 dead in around 25 years of intensive violence, perpetuated in the cause of two competing ideologies: should northern Ireland stay part of the United Kingdom, or be reunified with the Irish Republic, along with the attendant questions of human rights, equality, historic injustice, and the kind of stake our people would have in our own society.
We took the rhetoric of ‘targeting’ political opponents beyond the dehumanising manifestation currently alive in US culture, and finding its horrific expression in the Arizona shootings this weekend; some of our current political representatives actually killed people themselves. Anyone who worked for the state – police officers, civil servants, census takers – could be considered a legitimate target by Irish Republican militants; the daily nerve-wrack of checking under the car for a bomb became a fact of life. And despite the protestations of some historical revisionists, for many Protestants, their religion and ethnicity seemed to be enough of a reason for them to be living in fear. At the same time, the Irish Republican and nationalist community often found itself repressed by the state, living under suspicion, and abused into second class citizen status; pro-British militants killed many people just because they were Catholics.
Nearly 4000 dead; 43 000 directly physically injured. And then, what?
We took responsibility.
Now, we govern ourselves; with former sworn enemies who used to violently threaten each other sitting in a legislative assembly together, not unlike a typical US statehouse; with a key difference being that we have imagined democracy as best expressed in consensus and compromise, rather than one community dominating another. It’s extraordinary – you should look into it – there are huge lessons for all of us.
Books have been written on the role that ordinary people like us can play in shaping political processes that reduce violence*, but in the simplest terms, what I want to say about the potential lessons from northern Ireland for the US at this point in its precarious history is this: You have to get to the negotiating table now. If you wait until another shooting or bombing or threat, nothing will have been gained.
After the peace process in northern Ireland had begun to take root, I chaired a public meeting at which the person widely believed to have co-led the IRA for much of its modern existence spoke about what he would like to see change in our society. I began the meeting by asking him if, given that he had frightened me throughout my childhood, he could give me any guarantees that I didn’t need to be afraid of him anymore. He first attempted to deflect the question, saying, ‘Well, Gareth, lots of us have reasons to be afraid of various people’. I interjected, and offered a compromise, ‘OK Gerry,’ I said, ‘I’ll make you a deal: I’ll not give you any reasons to be afraid of me, if you don’t give me any reasons to be afraid of you.’ It was possibly snarky, but it was a start. We shook hands; and I haven’t met him again, but he has pursued a non-violent political path; as have the rest of northern Ireland’s elected representatives.
They did this for many reasons – two of which are that they realised the cost of violence is too high; and because they allowed a third party – in the form of US intervention through the presence of Senator George Mitchell as a mediator – to help them discover something like the common good. In talking, they started to reduce their own prejudice; and eventually, people who used to advocate each other’s violent death started sharing offices. One even acknowledged praying with a man some of whose political supporters might have been glad to kill either of them only 15 years ago.
These things are possible when public representatives are given the space by their supporters to start talking about their opponents as human beings. These things happened, not in fiction, but in the very recent past of an island only a few thousand miles away from the White House. They happened partly because the White House offered help. All this leads me to a simple conclusion: it is one of the gifts of the United States to help mediate in other people’s conflicts. Amazing things can happen when US humanitarian intervention takes place, to provoke a vision of possibility that transcends the belief that things can never change because they have always been this way. The US has the gifts to help others; this may be a moment when others need to help the US.
So, offered humbly, let me, as an outsider now making my home in the US suggest a few thoughts that may deserve reflection:
The fear expressed by many at the pace of social change is real, and needs to be responded to with respectful listening, not mockery. Sarah Palin is a human being. So is Glenn Beck. They speak for a large number of people, whether some of us like it or not. They will not be calmed down by being shouted at or mocked. The degree to which the fears they articulate are genuine will only find its proportion when their political opponents treat them with respect, or at least show willingness to listen. It works both ways of course.
There is a relationship between the psychological cost of recent wars and violent political rhetoric. The cultural expression of what the United States means is part of the problem: seeing itself as a hammer leads to seeing everyone else as nails. The world is too small to afford this.
As the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 horror approaches, it would be good to take time to ask if lament was postponed in favor of revenge; and then to finally start having a national conversation about how to grieve in a way that honors the victims without turning painful emotions into a reason to create more violence.
*A new example: later this year Oxford University Press will publish a volume on the role of faith-based groups in the northern Ireland peace process co-authored by John Brewer, Francis Teeny and myself