Ominous may be the right word to describe Northern Ireland conditions today:
On Saturday evening, March 14 this year, two British soldiers, Mark Quinsey, 23, and Cengiz Patrick Azimkar, 21, were shot and killed by automatic gunfire as a pizza delivery truck pulled up to their barracks in County Antrim.
Two days later, on Sunday evening, March 16, Police Constable Stephen Paul Carroll, 49 and a Catholic, was investigating a call for help in Craigavon, County Armagh when he was shot in the back of the head by a sniper.
On Sunday, May 24, after a soccer match in Scotland, a gang of 40 men from a Protestant neighborhood in Coleraine, County Derry, objecting to the Irish flags hung in a nearby Catholic neighborhood, stormed the Catholic area, attacking several residents, beating to death Kevin McDaid, 49 and a father of four, and severely injuring his wife and another man.
In a troublesome election held on June 5, firebrand unionist politician Jim Allister won 66,197 first preference votes, dramatically demonstrating that the Paisley style of Unionist arrogance is alive and well. Allister lost his election but severely reduced the more moderate Unionist vote. He wants to turn back the clock, throw Sinn Fein out of government, and return to the old ways, risking a great violence once again.
In early July, Northern Ireland's newly appointed Minister of Culture, Nelson McCausland, one of Paisley's hard-line followers declared that he would not attend Roman Catholic events because of his opposition to the religion. In addition, he said he would not attend any GAA games - the sports tradition in the Nationalist community. Minister McCausland apparently does not believe that Catholic culture or the GAA games are included in his brief. As an elected government leader, he is choosing to represent only one side of the community.
On Thursday July 9, the Irish Times and BBC news reported that five Catholic churches were damaged in sectarian attacks in the notorious Ballymena area and a fire was set at a GAA club in Ahogill.
On July 13 the Protestant community and the anti-Catholic Orange Order celebrated a 400-year-old victory over Catholics by conducting - as they have for years - loud booming marches through Catholic communities. According to the Belfast Telegraph, this year the marches were the most violent in ten years. Twenty one police men were injured by thrown bricks and bottles; a woman died after being run over by a parade vehicle; and many were arrested. The riots were caused by Nationalists and break-away remnants of the IRA that have refused to sign the peace treaty in protest over the Good Friday agreement. Celebratory marches in their neighborhoods simply aggravate the problems. The riots continued for at least three days even with Sinn Fein leaders condemning the troublemakers involved
After the beatings and killing of Mr. McDaid in May, Hugh Orde, Chief of the Northern Ireland Police, was quoted in the Belfast Telegraph newspaper as saying, "The elephant in the room is sectarianism, brought out in a stark way last weekend."
Though the vast majority of people on both sides want peace and normal lives, religious bigotry and base ignorance remain in the minds of an aggressive minority that contains both Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists. The bitterness exists in spite of the progress being made on many other fronts. The recent decommissioning of Loyalist paramilitary weapons and ammunition is a welcome and much-sought-after decision made by the two unionist political parties responsible for most of the violence from within the Protestant community for the past 40 years.
But such moves do not impact hard-core holdouts on either side. For the most part, lower-income Catholics and Protestants live apart in their own neighborhoods, separated by 20-to-30 foot high walls referred to as Peace Walls. Both communities abhor such prison-like barriers, but the walls remain to protect inhabitants from the fear of violence from the other side. Events have shown that these walls will remain, at least for now. But before real peace can occur, the barriers must come down.
How can Northern Ireland heal itself when such unknowing animosity exists within some of its larger communities? Many believe the answer lies in education, especially at the primary school level, where parental involvement is at its greatest and where both parent and child can learn together that the other side is so much like themselves.
Recently, for example, the children and parents of St. Matthews, the Catholic primary school in East Belfast, and the parents and children of the nearby Protestant Beechfield primary school shared a musical exercise, even taking their performance to Dublin. Some parents in the area had been throwing rocks at each other not long ago.
Though some Northern Ireland authorities frown upon integrated education, it is slowly growing. Some Protestant schools, for instance, have openly petitioned government for permission to enlist young Catholics in their schools. Irish Americans who have the opportunity would do well in supporting the process.