A President's Prayer for Peace Strengthens Hearts in Ulster

'I believe you can summon the strength to keep moving forward. After all, you have come so far already. You have braved so many dangers, you have endured so many sacrifices. Surely there can be no turning back."

Sometimes it takes an outsider to make you aware of the deepest thoughts inside your own heart. And when this outsider happens to be the president of the United States, who is visiting your own small country, you tend to pay attention.

During his recent visit to Belfast, President Clinton told all of us, Protestant and Catholic alike, "Northern Ireland has a chance not only to begin anew, but to be a real inspiration to the rest of the world, a model of progress through tolerance."

I found such words to be inspired and inspiring. The speaker seemed to really care about what happened to me and my family and all the other people in this small province who have endured the darkness of violence for so long.

President Clinton challenged me directly to go on working for reconciliation in Northern Ireland when he said, "Peace must be waged with a warrior's resolve - bravely, proudly, and relentlessly - secure in the knowledge of the single difference between war and peace; in peace everyone can win."

People outside Northern Ireland may not realize how fragile the present peace is. I was in Edinburgh when the Irish Republican Army declared its cease-fire in August, a year ago, and I was in Mexico when the Protestant paramilitaries did likewise a few weeks later.

Though I was not in my native Ulster for either of these historic events, I felt their impact deeply. For 25 years I had lived through a long nightmare and I had reported acts of murder and savagery (as well as stories of the great courage and kindness of Ulster people) to an international audience. It seemed, at last, that the cease-fire had given the opportunity for a lasting peace.

On the surface, peace seemed to bestow a kind of normality on the province. I noted, with a quiet satisfaction, the easing of tension on the streets, the scaling-down of the armed forces, the removal of road blocks, the disappearance of security guards at the entrance to stores and other public places.

I was delighted at the influx of tourists from North America, Australia, Europe, the rest of the United Kingdom, and above all, from the Irish Republic. It was great to hear the lilting accents of Dublin, Cork, and Kerry mingling with the broad Ulster brogues.

There were smiles in place of frowns, and I thought of the words of that jaunty old song, "When Irish eyes are smiling, sure it's like a morn 'in Spring...."

Beneath the surface, however, there were continued strains that were difficult for the outside world to detect or comprehend. Despite all the talk about peace, the politicians were still far apart.

In the absence of any significant movement, there were implied threats from the Provisional IRA of an inevitable return to violence. The Christmas lights were still bright in Belfast, the stores were crowded, but there was a growing fear in people's hearts that peace might not last.

I found myself thinking, more than once, "I just could not bear a return to the violence. Yet what can we do to keep the peace process on the right track?"

It was around this time that Bill Clinton came to Belfast and made one of the best speeches of his life. He told us, in effect, that you are either for peace or you are against it. And he said it with such eloquence and sincerity that he tapped into our hopes and aspirations in a way that transcended politics and appealed to the hearts of people on all sides.

As I move around Belfast in the run-up to Christmas, I rejoice in the sights and sounds of this joyous time. But I am constantly aware that the message of peace at Christmas is more challenging than ever. It is not just the symbolism of a babe in a manger stall, though that is the rightful center of the holiday.

The peace in Ulster has a sharper, tougher edge. I believe it has a great urgency. The window of opportunity is still open, and we must not allow it to close this time.

I know that peace has to start in my heart and mind, before I ask others to do the same or accuse them of not being peacemakers.

Peace in Ulster this Christmas is everybody's business. It is as fragile as the manger-child and yet just as powerful because it contains the seeds of justice and truth. The Christmas message from Belfast this year is comforting yet challenging. We have braved so many dangers, we have endured so many sacrifices, and somehow we will summon the strength to keep moving forward.

There can indeed be no turning back.

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