3 September 2005

A country whose time has come

By Marguerite Finn

"When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then let my epitaph be written"

Thus spoke Irishman Robert Emmett in his speech from the Dock prior to being executed in 1803. In our house, a large print of Robert Emmett hung on the wall at the bend in the stairs. I passed the picture on my way to and from bed every day for 23 years. I used to wonder who would write Emmett's epitaph - and when. Perhaps the time has come?

In 2004, The Economist Intelligence Unit reported that the Republic of Ireland is the best country in the world to live in. Irish adherence to family values on the one hand, while embracing economic growth on the other, enables Ireland to maintain the delicate balance between tradition and modernity.

The Lake Isle of InnesfreePhoto: The Lake of Isle of Innesfree

I was born in Howth - a fishing village 9½ miles north-east of Dublin. It was a wonderful place to grow up in. The population was a glorious mix of Catholic, Protestant and other faiths (the Dalai Lama took refuge in Howth for a while!). In this close-knit community, Catholic children met up after school with their Protestant friends to go swimming or play tennis. Catholic Priest and Protestant Minister were buddies, invited jointly to all village functions. Both churches were a vital part of the community, an integral part of daily life. That was Ireland in 1967, just one year before the ambush of a Civil Rights march in October 1968 triggered the onset of Northern Ireland's recent "Troubles".

It must be said that the denial of civil rights denied to Northern Ireland Catholics in the years leading up to 1968 was unjust. Readers today may find it hard to believe that a substantial group of UK citizens were denied a vote and were discriminated against in housing and employment. This continued unchecked by Westminster for decades. Thirty years of pain and terror followed.

There has been an unwillingness to face up to the injustices of Northern Ireland, both on the part of the UK government and the UK media. It was tempting to concentrate on the terrorist activities of the "Sinn Fein /IRA" rather than paint a more balanced picture of a failing society.

How many readers know that Catholic families in County Antrim, have now been issued with fire blankets by the Ulster police, to thwart sectarian attacks by loyalist paramilitaries? Last month, a Catholic Primary School was fire-bombed, and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) warned Catholic families living peaceably on a mixed housing estate near Belfast, that they would be burned out if they did not leave. It is easy to pretend that such things don't happen in our democracy. But this 'blind spot' allowed years of pent-up resentment, mistrust and suspicion to harden into extremes, manifested in the revival of the IRA and Loyalist paramilitary groups.

In July, the IRA formally announced the end to their armed campaign and signalled their willingness to "assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means." This was a groundbreaking statement. The British and Irish Prime Ministers responded in kind. But much remains to be done. The people of Northern Ireland need our unbiased support. Northern Ireland stands on the brink - it can move forward into the 21st Century, with a just and peaceful society, or it can slide into a sectarian hell. All of us, as members of the 'civil society', can help prevent that by being aware of the problems facing the divided community on our doorstep, and by being interested in resolving them.

Mo MowlamAugust saw the untimely death of Mo Mowlam, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and a good friend to that country. Mo worked very hard for all the people of the province, enabling nationalists to engage constructively with the British Government, leading to the Good Friday Agreement, which still remains the best hope for peace.

Mo Mowlam appealed to the basic humanity of ordinary people and this humanity may yet prevail where politics fail. A group of Protestants in Ballymena are planning a vigil to show their support for Catholics whose church was repeatedly attacked. Our Lady's Church was paint-bombed and daubed with sectarian graffiti four times in August. Protestants from a nearby Presbyterian church helped clean up the mess, wanting to show Loyalists that they did not support sectarian violence. Protestants from throughout Ballymena plan to join them and pray at our Lady's Church - a gesture deeply appreciated by the Catholic congregation.

The Protestants of Ballymena are giving Robert Emmett a reason to be proud of his country.