The Irish obligation

WILLIAM HUGHES

March 17, 1992|By William Hughes

EVERY YEAR on this day, the Irish, near-Irish, pseudo-Irish and would-love-to-be Irish come out of their homes to celebrate their heritage and the feast of Ireland's glorious patron saint. Before, during and after the big day, they drink a lot of imported lager, finish off quite a few kegs of beer, parade proudly down (fill in the street or avenue), eat tons of boiled corn beef and TC potatoes, wear silly green hats and mug shamelessly for cameras.

Some veterans of this grueling annual rite even get invited to make totally irrelevant speeches. Mercifully, their words are quickly forgotten.

But these fun-loving leprechauns, these St. Patrick's Day Irish, with some notable exceptions, do not give much of a fig for the "troubles" in the north of their homeland. Their "Irishness" revolves around this one holiday only -- St. Patrick's Day.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with any soul enjoying a jig or two, belting out an off-key verse of "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" or raising the blarney level an octave or so. In fact, all of this may do some good in building community bonds and spurring the local economy. But I suggest that being Irish has its serious side, too. Perhaps it's time that we Irish started taking our Irishness more seriously.

The typical St. Patrick's Day reveler has little knowledge of what is going on in Northern Ireland, of the history or the personalities involved in the dispute with the British. To seven of 10 Irish in America, John Major is a British filtered cigarette sold in a fancy box, Sinn Fein is an exotic Thai restaurant, Gerry Adams is the patriarch of the "Addams Family" and Ian Paisley is a fancy men's tie.

But finally, some U.S. senators and members of the House have decided to break this country's long silence about human rights abuses in Northern Ireland. On Jan. 27, 11 senators, led by Irish-America's "Big Five" -- Christopher J. Dodd, Edward M. Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, John F. Kerry and Tom Harkin -- threw down the gauntlet to President Bush. Although the senators acknowledged the "strong friendship" between the U.S. and the United Kingdom, they said the human rights violations in the north of Ireland require the U.S. to end its "long tradition of silence on this important issue."

The senators denounced the politically motivated killings of civilians by the security forces in the north, the shoot-to-kill policy of the British army, the ill treatment of nationalist suspects while in detention and the sharing by the British government of intelligence data with armed loyalist groups.

The lawmakers emphasized that their concerns were based on the documented human rights reports of Amnesty International and other reputable groups. They pointed out that of the more than 300 killings of unarmed Catholics by security personnel since 1969, only 21 cases have resulted in murder charges, and only two cases have resulted in convictions.

They also emphasized the grossly unjust sentences against Irish defendants in the "Guildford Four" and "Birmingham Six" cases and the stonewalling of an investigation into the 1982 murders of six Catholic youths by an elite anti-terrorist squad in County Armagh. They urged the president to use his influence with the British government to correct these repressive practices.

The senators' bold action didn't end there. The correspondence has since been converted into a resolution with the additional request that all parties to the war in the north be invited to a peace conference, including the legal voice of the Republican movement, Sinn Fein.

The St. Patrick's Day Irish could add a dimension to this year's frolicking by taking on the important role of activist. A letter or phone call from each Irish reveler to the White House and his or her senators and member of Congress, supporting the peace initiative, could add up and eventually make a difference.

The choice is a clear one: On the one side is more killing, maiming and terrible personal tragedy. On the other is bringing peace to the "Emerald Isle" we sing about today so that its sons and daughters, Protestants and Catholics, Loyalists and Republicans alike, may reclaim their shared ancestry.

William Hughes is a Baltimore lawyer.

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