Nobel laureate sees one identity centered on peace A vision for Northern Ireland

February 11, 1995|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

Mairead Corrigan Maguire, a Nobel laureate and Irish peacemaker with a bare whisper of a voice, brought her own hard truth to Baltimore yesterday.

"There are people who look at Ireland and its troubles and say the answer is Irish unity," she told a small group of students, priests and others who gathered in Loyola College's Alumni Chapel. "Get the Brits out!"

But that's no answer, she said, adding: "I'm here to say, Irish unity is just not on."

She spoke with the certitude of one who has mulled the problem for years and has finally grasped the answer.

It's not that Mrs. Maguire has played a role in the peace process that has flowered in Northern Ireland within the past year. That is the product of initiatives by the leaders of the two Catholic parties in the province, John Hume and Gerry Adams, with a lot of cooperation from the British and Irish governments, and encouragement from the United States.

Yet is is her vision of peace between the Catholics and Protestants that is being played out now -- almost 20 years after she helped launch a nonviolence movement at a time of ferocious confrontation in Northern Ireland. Ever since, she has given her energies and lent the luster of her name to a variety of reconciliation efforts in her homeland.

Nevertheless, her message is still not one that falls lightly on the ears of those sympathetic to the cause of Irish unity and the Irish Republican Army, not here, not in the Irish Republic, not in the Catholic ghettos of Northern Ireland's cities.

It is an unexpected, some might say traitorous, assertion from a Catholic woman raised in that crucible of Irish violence, Belfast. But it is not meant to give comfort to the die-hard Protestant factions in Northern Ireland loyal to Britain, nor to the British government.

Over the decades of strife, as the spear carriers of the "two traditions" have waved their opposing banners at each other -- the flag of Irish unity vs. the flag of perpetual union with Great Britain -- Mrs. Maguire saw how tattered they had become. She perceived something new emerging.

"An evolving Northern Ireland identity," she calls it. It has been developing slowly since 1922 when the 26 counties of Ireland won autonomy from Britain, and six of the Protestant-dominated counties of Ulster were held back and declared a permanent part of the United Kingdom.

"We have had 70 years of division and over that time we have become a different people," she said. All the descriptions set out to encourage division -- Catholics vs. Protestants; Celts vs. Anglo Saxons; Irish nationalists vs. British loyalists -- have only served to differentiate each faction more from its parent group than from each other.

Driven by constant fear of abandonment by Britain, Protestant Unionists strain to be more British than the British, and thus become caricatures, derided in London.

The rabid Irish nationalist becomes the stage Irish rebel, and with all his songs of violence, he baffles the citizens of the Republic of Ireland.

Through it all, the two tribes become more alike without even noticing it. In the end, she says, they have only themselves to depend on.

Because of this, she believes, a new kind of politics can develop in Northern Ireland. "If people can rise above these British and Irish identities, stop looking as Protestants back to London and as Catholics to Dublin, if they can do that we can build a unique society," one perhaps looking toward Europe.

"The south of Ireland has found its own identity," said Mrs. Maguire. "There are no strong links between us. Seventy percent of the people in the south have never come north to spend one night."

But, she added, "the south has very strong links with England. They have stronger cultural links with England than the North has. They have families in England. To us they say, 'we don't know what you're fighting about.' "

Mrs. Maguire, a 51-year-old mother of five, was invited to Loyola by the Student Government Association and the Maryland Catholic Conference. Over the past week she has spoken in several other U.S. cities.

She is a small woman with blue-gray eyes that never waver, bangs on a short, efficient hairdo. She lives in a small town 30 miles south of Belfast called Kilclief, in County Down.

She became famous as a peacemaker two decades ago when she and two friends -- Betty Williams and Ciaran McKeown -- organized the largest protest demonstrations against communal violence ever seen in Ireland. These took place in Belfast, Londonderry and Dublin.

Their action was precipitated by an incident that occurred on Aug. 10, 1976. Two of Mrs. Maguire's nephews and one of her nieces were killed by an out-of-control getaway car driven by an IRA gunman who had been shot to death by British soldiers. Her sister, Anne, never got over the loss of her children and died four years after them.

Mairead (pronounced ma-RAID) was a Corrigan then. Eventually she married her sister's widower, Jackie Maguire.

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