How Two from N.Y. Aided Peace in Ireland

By Colin Miner

NY Sun – April 12, 2007

It was raining in Belfast the Monday after St. Patrick’s Day, but the sun was about to shine on the peace process.

Traffic and weather had assured that Brian O’Dwyer, as close there is to royalty in Irish-American politics in New York, and Christine Quinn, the speaker of the City Council, were late arriving at the seat of government in Northern Ireland, Stormont.

There they were scheduled to meet two Protestant leaders, Jeffrey Donaldson and Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party.

The New Yorkers, who hoped to have a chance to express their desire for peace in Northern Ireland, expected to hear discouraging news from Messrs. Donaldson and Robinson.

A deadline was looming for the Unionists and Sinn Fein to reach a power-sharing agreement or face more British involvement in their day-to-day activities. It wasn’t looking good.

"We fully expected to hear why they weren’t ready to join the government," Mr. O’Dwyer said. "What we certainly were not expecting was what happened." At the gate, the officer told them, "Dr. Paisley is waiting to see you."

Mr. Paisley at 80 is as feared as he was at 60. At 40. The chief Loyalist, Mr. Paisley has developed a reputation as Dr. No, refusing for decades even to meet in person with his Catholic counterparts.

"We didn’t know what to expect," Mr. O’Dwyer said. "I told Chris it should just be the two of us at first. He had never agreed to meet with a delegation from the United States. When we were setting up this trip, we didn’t even ask to meet with him because we knew the answer would be no."

Things change.

"The whole situation was a little eerie," Mr. O’Dwyer said. "There was no one around. The building was officially closed because it was a bank holiday. They opened up just for us. And we were led down a quiet hallway to a conference room on the fifth floor. And there, along with Donaldson and Robinson, was Ian Paisley. He greeted us warmly with a smile.

"I was shocked. Flabbergasted. Astounded."

To top it off, the Protestants had a spread of tea and sandwiches waiting for them.

While Paul O’Dwyer — Brian O’Dwyer’s near-legendary father — had always been somewhat ahead of his time in believing that the Irish-American community had a real responsibility to reach out to the Protestants, Brian O’Dwyer said he doubts his father would have foreseen this meeting ever taking place.

"Don’t get me wrong. He was the first — and for many years the only — Irish-American to reach out to the Protestants. But I don’t think he would have anticipated this. I’d like to think he would be delighted," he said.

For about 15 minutes, the two New Yorkers listened almost in awe as a person they had both heard many times described as being among the most hated, spoke quietly, with conciliation in his voice.

"He was charming and eloquent," Mr. O’Dwyer said, still sounding a little surprised by the experience. "Right away, he gave us signs that there had been a change, that he was willing to deal. He spoke of how impressed he’d been by Sinn Fein, acknowledging that they had made many concessions. And he kept speaking of ‘this little country of ours.’ All three of them were using the phrase."

Mr. O’Dwyer said that while the Protestants made it clear that they finally were willing to talk, they also made it plain that they would not be dictated to. It was the issue of being told what to do that Mr. O’Dwyer thinks may have brought the Protestants and Catholics together, he said.

"Irish politics is very retail-oriented," Mr. O’Dwyer said. "And both parties, going door to door, had heard from their people that the main concerns were no longer things like the Constitution. It was bread and butter issues like unemployment and water bills."

Throughout Britain, most residents pay for their water, something unheard of in Northern Ireland.

"The British had made it clear that if there was no agreement by Monday, on Tuesday the first water bills would go out," Mr. O’Dwyer said. "No one really wanted that to happen."

Mr. O’Dwyer said the Protestants also made it clear that economics is a major issue.

"They see what’s going on in the south and recognize they are not seeing the same prosperity," he said. "We assured them we would work to help them." After the meeting, Mr. O’Dwyer and Ms. Quinn informed Sinn Fein and the Irish and British governments about the meeting.

"There was a lot surprise," he says. "But everyone was delighted." Five days later, Mr. Paisley and the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, sat down for the first time. Two days after that, an agreement was announced.

"We were used," Mr. O’Dwyer said. "But it was in a good way. We were used to send a message.