BERNARD MacLaverty, a writer from Northern Ireland, tells the story of a Belfast man who goes out one evening to walk his dog. Within minutes, the man is abducted by two men, forced at gunpoint into their car and driven through the streets of Belfast.
Without revealing their sectarian affiliation, the terrorists demand that the man answer a series of questions: What is his name? What school did he go to? What church does he attend? Where does he work? They even demand that he recite the alphabet. Their object is to discover his sectarian or cultural affiliation -- Catholic or Protestant, nationalist or unionist, Gael or Brit.
On each question, the man thwarts them, either refusing to answer or providing a neutral response. (When he comes to the letter "h" in reciting the alphabet, he says both "aitch" and "haitch," so as not to let dialect reveal his identity.) Frustrated and unwilling to avoid harming one of their own, they let him go. He has possibly saved his life by hiding his sectarian-cultural identity.
MacLaverty's tale is fiction, part of a collection of short stories, but as fiction it is a bone-chilling representation of what life has been like in Northern Ireland the past 30 years (some 3,500 people killed and thousands more maimed in sectarian strife), and a cautionary tale of what might be finally needed to make Ireland a land of peace.
The recent and momentous implementation of the Good Friday peace accord holds out promise of a permanent end to conflict (what the Irish euphemistically refer to as "The Troubles"), not just the conflict of the past 30 years in Northern Ireland but also of nearly 900 years throughout Ireland. If that promise is to be fulfilled, rather than broken as it has so many times in the past, then what might be required, ironically, is for the Irish North and South to give up what they prize so much: their cultural affiliations.
George J. Mitchell, former Maine senator and chief broker of the 1998 peace accord, remarked in a talk he gave at Goucher College that the greatest impediment to the negotiations was the historical imagination of the Irish. They seem to remember all of the major events of the colonial past, and they revive those events just when they need to forget them.
Two deep traditions exist in Ireland -- one Gaelic and Catholic, and the other Anglo-Irish and Protestant. The past 30 years of war in Northern Ireland have emphasized the division between those two traditions, portraying the former as exclusively nationalist and the latter as entirely unionist.
But history has not always kept those two traditions as clearly separated as recent events might lead us to think. The first English settlers, the Norman earls sent into Ireland by Henry II to conquer the Gaelic chieftains in the 12th century (before the Protestant Reformation), were Catholic. Many of them became, as the saying goes, "more Irish than the Irish themselves." The Munster FitzGeralds, Anglo-Norman earls of Desmond, fomented a major (though failed) rebellion against the English crown in the 1580s.
They weren't the only transplanted Englishmen who preferred to see Ireland free of English rule. The rebellion of 1798 ("The Year of the French") was fought primarily by the United Irishmen, an insurgency organization that drew its first recruits from Ulster Protestants whose Elizabethan ancestors had been deliberately "planted" there to secure loyalty to the English crown. The two great nationalist martyrs of that rebellion, Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward Fitzgerald, as well as Robert Emmet who led the ill-fated rebellion of 1803, were Anglo-Irish.
One of the great Irish nationalists of the 19th century, Charles Stewart Parnell, was an Anglo-Irish Protestant. So were many of the literary nationalists at the turn of the century: W.B. Yeats, Douglas Hyde, Lady Gregory and J.M. Synge. In this century, Catholics and Protestants fought side by side in the War of Independence against British forces. And -- ironically -- Catholics fought Catholics in the Civil War that followed the treaty creating the Free State.
Even the events that touched off the renewal of violence in the late 1960s -- the civil rights marches in Derry and Belfast -- had something of a nonsectarian cast to them, until the Provisional IRA and the Protestant paramilitary groups began to choose their targets according to religious affiliation.
There is no denying the strong sectarian animosity in Northern Ireland. The Protestants there are largely descendants of the Elizabethan planters of the 17th century, and their relations with the Catholics, most of whom are of Gaelic descent, have always been tinged by the bitterness of historical memories. Catholics remember all too well Cromwell's mass slaughter of their kind in the 17th century, and Protestants refuse to let go of their memory of King William's victory over the Catholic James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The annual summer marches of the Orange Order commemorate that victory.