St. Paddy and risky traditions

March 17, 2000|By James F. Burns

ARE PROTESTANTS "green with envy" on St. Patrick's Day?

If they're American Protestants, they can sip green beer and celebrate St. Paddy's Day regardless of religious affiliation. Over here, St. Patrick's Day is not wholly a Catholic occasion or holiday -- holy or otherwise.

All creeds are welcome to wear the green.

But in the Emerald Isle, celebrating St. Patrick's Day isn't so simple. In Ireland, it is religion rather than race that's the great divider. The very Christianity that could be a common denominator instead splits people into opposing camps -- color yourself either Ulster Protestant orange or Irish Catholic green. Integration is more advanced in Mississippi and Alabama than in Derry, Downpatrick or Belfast in Northern Ireland. By a bunch.

Ulster Protestants, who sometimes accuse Catholics of "hijacking" St. Patrick, are confused by the man's mixed pedigree. On the one hand, he was "a Brit," not a native Irishman. On the other hand, he did cross the Irish Sea and evangelize Ireland more than a millennium before the Reformation. Just how "Roman Catholic" the island's patron saint was in polity and practice continues to be debated.

Belfast Protestants remain wary of a St. Patrick's Day parade in which flutters the flag of the rival Republic of Ireland. Such republican trappings are seen as symbols of the IRA, whether so intended or not. And in the second city of the British province -- Derry to Catholics, Londonderry to Protestants -- a Protestant heritage group is modestly marking St. Patrick's Day this year for the first time. But please don't confuse that with a massive ecumenical movement.

The thawing of frigid relations between the two communities that gained momentum with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has been brought to an abrupt halt by the recent suspension of a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. Though fingers of blame point in all directions, the consensus is that the IRA's failure to commit to a firm schedule for decommissioning its weapons was the rock that derailed the peace train. Hard-core republicans shudder at the thought of "surrendering" their weapons.

Other people shudder at the thought of terrorists not turning in their weapons, be they loyalist or republican terrorists. The argument of retaining weapons to "defend" the Catholic community against loyalist incursions is undermined by their refusal to part with even an ounce of their powerful Semtex explosives, used to blast both buildings and British soldiers.

Semtex is not a defensive weapon; it is an offensive weapon capable of mass killing such as the Omagh massacre of 1998. A sabbatical trip to Northern Ireland first brought me into contact with the Ulster Troubles 20 years ago. I thereafter included a unit on Northern Ireland in a course I teach on conflict resolution, painfully watching the situation becoming more "conflict" and less "resolution" over the next 15 years. My initial use of this conflict as an example of a zero-sum game seemed wrong since both sides were losing, sinking into sectarian turmoil that seemed to know no end.

But small breakthroughs began to pop up in the mid-1990s. Everyone was war weary, and the phrase "enough is enough" captured the thought that this was an endless "lose-lose" situation for unionist and nationalist, Protestant and Catholic alike. Thus began the momentum behind a peace process that culminated in the Good Friday Agreement. The world cheered, Americans more than most as a result of our dual lineage of Irish and Scots-Irish that blended better in the vast expanse of this country than in the cramped conditions of the north of Ireland.

We were on our way to a win-win situation in Northern Ireland. But we've now hit a brick wall. The Protestant community, convinced that the IRA reneged on a disarmament deal, is converging around a policy of "no guns, no government." The republican movement replies with a "no government, no guns" slogan, suggesting the old chicken-and-egg dilemma: Which comes first?

Ireland may truly stand at the crossroads of war and peace this St. Patrick's Day. May the road rise to meet the moderates on both sides; and may the wind be at their back and not that of the extremists. We all want win-win, not lose-lose.

James F. Burns, a University of Florida professor, writes and lectures on Northern Ireland.

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