ON the 20th anniversary of the civil rights marches in Northern Ireland, a leading Irish Roman Catholic bishop has urged Ulster's fractious politicians to engage in meaningful dialogue lest they bring politics ``into disrepute.'' Bishop Cahal Daly spoke Oct. 8 at a Protestant-Catholic meeting at Ballycastle north of Belfast. His remarks gave added impetus to constructive suggestions from moderate politicians Edward McGrady and Ken Magennis.
Mr. McGrady is a member of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, which favors bringing about Irish unity by peaceful means. Mr. Magennis is a member of the mainly Protestant Official Unionist Party that favors continued links with Britain.
All three speakers were brought together by the Corrymeela Community, a church-based group of Catholics and Protestants searching for ``a way forward'' out of Northern Ireland's decades of sectarian violence.
Bishop Daly, an outspoken critic of the outlawed Irish Republican Army and its political wing, Sinn Fein, abruptly dismissed Sinn Fein's claims to be the true civil rights movement in Ulster. He said the IRA's terrorist campaign was ``the destruction of civil rights. It is a campaign of repression, it is counter-reformist, and indeed in the proper sense counter-revolutionary. The most basic of all civil rights is the right to life, and the IRA denies this right to whole categories of people.''
The bishop, whose statements carry more weight and credibility than those of almost any other member of the Irish Catholic hierarchy, also issued a blunt warning to political leaders who still hesitate to enter productive talks. ``Politicians who continue to refuse dialogue, or who demand preconditions for dialogue which they know to be impossible, are failing their country in this decisive moment of history,'' he said.
Significantly, the representatives of Northern Ireland's 1 million Protestants and 0.5 million Catholics took their cue from the assembled Corrymeela peacemakers and made some tentative proposals which showed that at least some warmth remains beneath Ulster's long-frozen politics.
Unionist Magennis, whose constituency includes Ennis-killen, where 11 people died in an IRA bombing last year, said he would welcome talks between constitutional politicians in Northern Ireland ``without any input directly from London or Dublin.''
Mcgrady, a leading member of the SDLP, agreed. ``Let unionists and nationalists talk face to face,'' he said, ``each confident in his own case and respecting the integrity and validity of the other's position.''
Both men used politically coded language to sidestep the major obstacle, the Anglo-Irish agreement. Signed in 1985, this accord gives the Irish Republic a consultative role in the governing of Northern Ireland. In return, Dublin agreed to recognize the legitimacy of the Northern Irish state.
Unionists have bitterly opposed the agreement. They say that it has not improved the situation and is the first step to Irish unity. Nationalists cling to the accord, saying it guarantees a protection of their basic rights by giving the Irish government a direct voice in Ulster's affairs.
The workings of the agreement, though not its terms, are due for review next month, and both sides are privately trying to find a way forward while publicly adhering to their pro- or anti-agreement positions.
The Corrymeela conference attracted some influential observers from Dublin and London.
Hardliners and some political observers say moves toward peace are unlikely. But the Corrymeela conference shows that many ordinary people on both sides of the Northern Irish divide are longing for peace.