SOME time ago a Northern Ireland group called Women Together staged a one-day peace rally throughout the province. At six locations, there were speeches of hope for uniting Protestants and Roman Catholics. Everyone was encouraged to wear white carnations, or something white to symbolize peace. Joanne Elliott, development officer for Women Together, told a crowd of 2,000 at Belfast city hall, ``As wives and mothers, we are not interested in the politics of power, but in the politics of humanity, family, and love.'' It was a moving experience. Yet, as a seasoned observer of events in Northern Ireland and as a former peace-march participant in which thousands of others had taken part, I found the event a little disappointing. Why were so few people prepared to take part this time? Why were the major political figures elsewhere on that afternoon? Had the era of really significant peace marches ended?
The next morning, though, I listened to a BBC broadcast by a Belfast priest in the Order of St. Francis. He had recently spent three years working with the order in New York City, and in returning to Belfast he was seeing his native city and its people with fresh eyes. ``Yes, there is hope,'' he argued.
His words started me thinking afresh about the hope for peace amidst the violence and community deadlock in Northern Ireland. Lasting peace is based on changed attitudes, on a willingness to forge new relationships, and on an awareness, however grudging, that past animosities need to be relinquished to allow new growth.
Judged against such criteria, it may be that a slow and often painful process of reassessement deep within Northern Ireland's Protestant and Roman Catholic communities is laying the foundation of a just and lasting peace. This is not the stuff of dramatic headlines, but rather the germination of a quiet hope that will outlast the chills and storms of a long historical winter.
The rallies on the Day of Peace were not insignificant, but perhaps the really important meeting on that afternoon took place in London when the three most powerful Northern Ireland politicians - James Molyneaux, leader of the Official Unionists; Ian Paisley, of the Democratic Unionists (both of whom represent Protestants who favor the link with Britain); and John Hume, of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, which favors Irish unity by peaceful means, met British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Their purpose was not to discuss constitutional politics, but to ask for government action to help sustain Belfast's beleaguered shipyard, which remains one of the province's most important employers.
Afterward, Mr. Molyneaux said, ``It was probably the most fruitful meeting we have ever had with any minister, to say nothing of a Prime Minister.'' The politicians had set aside their differences to unite on an economic issue. The cynics might dismiss this as the self-interest of Ulstermen, but it might well be a portent of things to come.
Within the same week, Dr. Brian Mawhinney, the education minister for the province, underlined the government's commitment to encourage the shared education of Protestant and Catholic children. He announced a 3 million grant to finance Lagan College, an independent school for Protestants and Catholics in Belfast, which had developed from humble beginnings with 28 pupils in 1981 (next year they will have some 600). Dr. Mawhinney said, ``I believe that there will be substantial benefit from educating Protestant and Catholic young people together and that only by cross-community contact will the divisions in our society be healed.'' Several days later Dr. Mawhinney announced a further 3 million to help improve community relations. Some 2 million of this will be used to set up a cultural-traditions program. ``The ability to live together in mutual respect has got to be the cement which holds a society together,'' he said.
There are also many church-based, social, and other groups working quietly and unspectacularly to help heal the divisions of history. Often this low-key approach, away from the glare of headlines, pays the greatest dividends. Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland work, pray, and hope together in many ways that would surprise outsiders, who see nothing but gloom and doom.
These developments will not lead to peace overnight. But they point to a determination to work at peace in a structured manner, and to encourage peacemaking in a practical and wide-ranging way which would have been unheard of a generation ago. Added to this is the economic awareness, underlined by the politicians in their visit to Mrs. Thatcher, that divisiveness will mean economic deprivation and disaster for all.
The current headlines about death and injury tend to crowd out these more hopeful signs, behind the scenes, but hope in Northern Ireland stubbornly refuses to go away. Perhaps that great Irish poet W.B. Yeats was prophetic when he wrote, in another context, ``Peace comes dropping slow.'' Peace is a slow process, but real peace is also sure.