WITH parades replete with bagpipes and blarney, Irish-Americans marked St. Patrick's Day this weekend. But amid the boisterous fun, many influential Irish-Americans wrestled with the question of how to bring lasting peace and prosperity to the Irish isle.
Efforts to achieve a political settlement in Northern Ireland, ending more than 25 years of paramilitary violence, are entering a crucial phase. The British-ruled province hovers on the brink of a return to warfare between Catholic and Protestant guerrillas, after the overwhelmingly Catholic Irish Republican Army ended its cease-fire in February with a bomb attack in London.
The bombings have demoralized the Irish-American community, says Sean McManus, head of the Irish National Caucus, a Washington-based lobbying group. He described the IRA action as a "great act of injustice to Irish-Americans who have invested so much effort into the process."
Yet if the "historic opportunity" for a final settlement is to be grasped, Irish-Americans constitute a key piece in the peace puzzle, according to John Hume, one of Northern Ireland's leading moderate politicians.
"Firstly, they can send a unified message that they want the restoration of the cease-fire," Mr. Hume said during a recent visit to Boston. Then, if a political agreement is signed, Irish-Americans must mobilize their significant economic resources to help cement the peace.
If every American who claims Irish ancestry - about 42 million people - spent $5 a month on Irish exports, the economy of both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic could "go through the roof," said Hume, who heads Northern Ireland's Social Democratic and Labour Party, which is mainly Catholic.
Hume wasn't the only Northern Irish politician in the United States last week. Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, canvassed Irish American communities, ostensibly to engage in spin doctoring in the wake of the IRA's bombing. The IRA wants the British to withdraw from Northern Ireland and unite the majority Protestant region with the overwhelmingly Catholic Republic of Ireland in the south.
"This is not a time for despair," said Mr. Adams, who later marched in the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York City. Most signs indicate that Irish-American groups are prepared to meet the new challenges. Some leading experts say Irish-Americans can make a difference in the economic sphere, adding that there is enthusiasm for continued investment. "The opportunities in the north of Ireland have hardly been tapped," says Elizabeth Shannon, the Boston-based author of several books on Ireland.
Although they won't have a seat in the negotiating table, Irish-Americans nonetheless provided early momentum to Northern Ireland's peace process. Acting on Irish-American pressure, President Clinton has served as a facilitator in the peace process.
Irish-Americans say his role was critical in bringing Northern Ireland closer to a final peace settlement. "Peace talks needed an outside catalyst," Mr. McManus says.
President Clinton's facilitator role was again on display last Friday at subdued St. Patrick's Day festivities at the White House. First, Clinton met with Irish Prime Minister John Bruton. He then hosted a traditional reception, attended for the first time by moderate Protestant politicians, including David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party. Adams was not invited. The White House event allowed many key players in the peace process to hold informal discussions.
"There is nothing to be lost here by taking a leap of faith.... What is to be lost in trying? Nothing," said Clinton. A peace breakthrough in Northern Ireland would benefit Clinton domestically, giving him a key foreign policy success during this US election year.
The next major milestone is June 10, when all parties to the Northern Ireland conflict are scheduled to hold formal negotiations. The discussions will include Sinn Fein, which until now has been barred because of the IRA's refusal to rearm.
For the peace talks to have a chance, however, the IRA must declare another cease-fire. If the Catholic paramilitaries remain unwilling to renounce violence, Protestant "loyalist" militias pledge to resume operations, threatening to unleash another upward spiral of tit-for-tat violence.
Most Irish-Americans are descendants of Catholic refugees, who sought to escape Britain's often harsh and discriminatory rule of Ireland. The Irish Republic gained formal independence in 1922. Northern Ireland, meanwhile, stayed a British domain.
Although many Irish-American leaders remain hostile to the British presence in Ireland, McManus said some Irish-American organizations would try to use whatever influence they have to get the IRA militants to restore their cease-fire.
"Hopefully the sheer weight of merit ... will convince the IRA of the monumental madness of not having another cease-fire," McManus said.