Beliefs Opinion Politics

COMMENTARY: Is peace possible in Northern Ireland?

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at, or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

DUBLIN _ Why has David Trimble, the head of the Ulster Unionists _ the major Protestant party in Northern Ireland _ not thrown a monkey wrench into the peace process on this island the way Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in his part of the world?

Why has Trimble, who would doubtless like to do to the Irish peace process the same thing many see Netanyahu doing to the Mideast effort, actually agreed to sit down in the same building with, and perhaps even across the same table from, the Catholic Sinn Fein?

There are two reasons and they’re both named Tony Blair, England’s new Labor prime minister.

Blair is the first English prime minister determined to find a settlement and end the 30 years _ to some, seven centuries _ of”troubles”in Ireland.

Indeed, it appears to be a matter of solemn principle with him. Moreover. Blair has more than enough votes to push a settlement through Parliament.

If the quarreling parties cannot reach a moderate and sensible solution in a reasonable amount of time _ say, by May _ then his government and the Irish government will draft their own plan and put it to a vote in both parts of Ireland. And they will carefully calibrate the plan to get enough votes for it.

Secondly, Blair knows, as does everyone else, the vast majority of Protestants and Catholics in the north want an end to this struggle. If anyone proposes a solution to them that seems as fair as it can be to all sides, it will win overwhelming approval.

Thus, the Protestant political leadership is faced with a choice: stay out of the meetings and have no influence on the outcome or join the discussion and try to get the best possible deal it can. That they see they are facing this stark alternative indicates how much the situation has changed in the last few months.

If the Labor government in London and the Irish government in Dublin stick to their guns and stand together, there’s a better chance for peace than there has been since the 17th century and the rule of Oliver Cromwell.

Many things can still go wrong. One can count on extremists on both sides to do their best to frustrate hopes for peace, just as in Israel.

One can also count on Trimble to use every extremist action as a pretext for scuttling the peace conference, just as Netanyahu has done in Israel.

And there will be more protests and demonstrations and marches and, sadly, explosions.

But the fundamental issue is whether Blair wants peace badly enough. Trimble will push Blair’s patience and his courage to the limit. Before the English election, Trimble dismissed Blair as a traitor because his wife and children are Catholic _ that is the kind of bigot who is the head of the largest Protestant party in Ireland.

Compared to him, Gerry Adams and the Sinn Fein are men of reason, although one cannot say the same thing of the shadow gunmen of the IRA.

For 75 years the power to solve the problem of Northern Ireland has not been in Belfast, much less Dublin, but in London. Now, for the first time, a leader of the English government has the power and apparently the will to end the conflict.

Harold Wilson, an earlier Labor prime minister, made a half hearted attempt in the 1970s, but backed down in the face of pressure from the English military. Wilson was a mush-brain leftist, a man innocent of courage and character. Blair, however, seems to be made of sterner stuff. The key question now is how stern.

No sane person would predict success.

Too many bigots, too many crazy men with guns and explosives, too many shady English political and military operatives with dirty tricks up their sleeves desperately want the peace negotiations to fail.

But this time _ with the help of God and a little bit of luck _ peace may finally come to all of Ireland.