In Northern Ireland, Peace Breaks Out on Many Fronts

Orange Order leader calls for meeting with Catholics, and Britain lowers the Union Jack.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In what political and religious leaders are calling a transformed public mood in Northern Ireland, ancient enemies appear to be edging toward reconciliation, boosting hopes of a lasting peace.

In the wake of the popular April 10 peace pact and the election in May of a multiparty assembly for the province, several encouraging moves are under way:

* In an unprecedented move, Robert Saulters, grand master of the Orange Order, on Aug. 1 will urge his Protestant organization of some 80,000 to agree to a direct meeting with Catholic nationalists.

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He wants them to discuss for the first time ways of curbing sectarian tension during the province's violence-prone annual marching season, which lasts from early June to late August.

* Ronnie Flanagan, Northern Ireland's top policeman, has ordered that the Union Jack - for Protestants a symbol of their close connection with Britain, but for many Catholic nationalists a potent source of resentment - will no longer fly over police stations on public holidays.

* A British parliamentary committee is recommending that new recruits to Mr. Flanagan's force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), should be banned from joining either the Orange Order or the Ancient Order of Hibernians, its Catholic counterpart. The committee also wants police officers who already belong to such orders to publicly register their membership.

* A group of Evangelical and Catholic church members, including 130 clergy and lay leaders, is urging Christians of all denominations to seek forgiveness and to actively build friendships together.

The change of mood in Northern Ireland appears to have been caused by a combination of factors: the impact of the killing of three young Catholic brothers during disturbances earlier this month; clear signs within the Northern Ireland electorate that the peace process is supported by a substantial majority of both religious communities; and steady insistence by the British government that it will not allow the April peace agreement to unravel.

Mr. Saulters's call for talks between the Orange Order and the mainly Catholic residents who live on the Garvaghy Road, the scene of a recent tense sectarian standoff, took his followers by surprise. The proposal will be made formally Aug. 1 at a special meeting in Belfast of the Grand Orange Lodge, the order's top policymaking body. It is thought to be the first time an Orange Order leader has proposed direct contacts with nationalists.

Saulters is reported to have told friends that he expects his initiative to be opposed by the Spirit of Drumcree group, an organization heavily composed of Orange Order members, who insist that they should be allowed to march through nationalist areas, despite residents' objections.

He said the "political atmosphere" in Northern Ireland had been "transformed" - a view supported by Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam.

Ms. Mowlam has endorsed Flanagan's decision to stop flying the Union Jack on police stations. The flag's traditional appearance on days such as July 12, when Protestants celebrate the 1690 defeat of Catholic King James II by the Protestant William of Orange, has been seen by nationalists as politically and religiously provocative.

The recommendation by the British Parliament's Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that new RUC recruits should be banned from joining the Orange Order or its Catholic counterpart has been heavily criticized by four committee members.

It seems probable, however, that the British government, along with its heavy parliamentary majority, will enforce the ban, and that lodge members currently serving in the RUC will be required to register membership.

Religious imbalance in the RUC is a prime source of resentment among Northern Ireland nationalists. Flanagan has confirmed that only about 8 percent of the RUC is Catholic, while Catholics account for roughly 40 percent of Northern Ireland's population.

The call by multifaith Christians, north and south, for all to ask forgiveness for past wrongs is a further reflection of the developing mood of reconciliation.

The "Evangelical and Catholics Together" group, based in Belfast, has produced a 16-page statement asking Christians from every tradition to explore their common faith and build friendships together. Due to be published and distributed this week, it states: "We repent of attitudes, words, and actions that have fostered hatred and divisions."

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