The Hard Work of Peace

As I sat watching the kids from the Catholic school and the kids from the mostly Protestant public school sing together today in East Belfast, Northern Ireland, I was struck by how they pretty much all looked to be brothers and sisters. They all had the same freckle-faced fair complexion. “I bet their parents and grandparents pretty much looked the same as well when they were that age,” I thought to myself as the Protestant kids beat on some drums at the end of the recital.

I am in Belfast today as a member of the Board of Cooperation Ireland (CI for short). CI funds projects dedicated to building a sustainable peace between the nationalist and loyalist communities in the north of Ireland. Belfast is a far different community than it was in 1985, when I first visited the city torn asunder by religious hatred.

The scars seem, from the outside, to be mostly healed. The politicians have declared that peace has arrived. For the sake of the fine people of this lovely province, I certainly hope they are right.

As I talked to a cabdriver who took me to my meeting, he confirmed to me that things were better, but that they aren’t over the hill yet. He cited the slowing economy as his biggest concern, and like most Americans, he blamed illegal immigrants and George Bush for the coming recession. He admitted that the Polish workers work hard, but accused them of sending their money back home to Poland. I didn’t bother engaging him in a debate on our president.

The flags have come down in most of the communities, but the murals depicting a more violent time still stand as reminders of a time not so long ago when this city was paralyzed by fear.

The folks I met with today work hard to construct a lasting peace. The trick is to get both communities to buy into a shared vision of the future, but part of the process of reconciliation must be to gain a shared understanding of the past. For example, CI took some members of the loyalist community to a museum in Donegal depicting the Irish Potato Famine. Many Protestants in Northern Ireland don’t accept that there was a potato famine. Educating both communities about what happened to both is a vital part of the reconciliation process.

There are some parallels between the Irish experience and that of blacks in the United States. Indeed, some Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland patterned their protests on the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Like African-Americans, Irish Catholics faced job discrimination. Like many African-Americans, many Irish Catholics learned to distrust the criminal justice system.

In Northern Ireland, all the parties developed a way to get to peace and reconciliation. They agreed to start the process of developing a common understanding of their history, so they can develop a stronger nation in the future. They are not there yet, but real peace is slowly developing.

In America, I don’t think we have done the really hard work to get to racial reconciliation. Real reconciliation is not just a one-way blame game. It is an active effort to walk in the other person’s shoes for a while.

John McCain should talk about this issue. McCain has spent some time studying the Irish peace process, and I know he can make a contribution.

So far, Barack Obama has this issue all to himself, with just his mere presence on the ballot. But real reconciliation is harder than just one vote for one man. It is a series of steps that will help this country develop a shared vision of the future, as it comes to grips with different views of history.

We can learn a lot from the Irish, especially when it comes to the hard work of establishing a lasting peace.