By Brian O’Dwyer
NY Daily News – March 17, 2008
Not long ago, that would have been the reaction from New York’s Catholic-dominated Irish community to the recent news that the Rev. Ian Paisley, head of the Protestant-dominated Democratic Unionist Party, was stepping down as first minister in Northern Ireland’s government.
But today, as we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, we look across the ocean to see a Northern Ireland where a historic power-sharing agreement between Catholics and Protestants is holding, and where the people are turning from strife to the growing opportunities in the south, in the Republic of Ireland – known as the Celtic Tiger – that have produced the most buoyant economy in Europe.
What a difference a year makes. It was just after last year’s St. Patrick’s Day that a delegation led by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn was unexpectedly invited to become the first group of Catholic New Yorkers to meet with Paisley, the most intransigent of Protestant leaders during decades of strife.
I, too, was part of that delegation invited to meet with Unionist leaders at Stormont, Northern Ireland’s parliament building. We arrived late, delayed by typically snarled Belfast traffic, and were told that Paisley had been waiting to see us.
We were surprised, to say the least, that Paisley would receive us. Quinn and I went in first to meet with him privately for about 10 minutes. Then we were joined by the rest of our delegation, numbering about 20 in all, for a meeting that went on for an hour.
It was a cordial, businesslike and ultimately productive meeting. The discussion was focused not on politics or the strife that has persisted since the partitioning of Ireland in 1921, but on economic opportunities.
We quickly understood that our job was to show that the Catholic Irish community in New York was committed to peaceful resolution of the troubles and would do whatever we could to facilitate it. Quinn promised that, if power-sharing were achieved, she would use her influence to encourage investment in Northern Ireland.
Our meeting received wide coverage in the Irish media on both sides of the border and, within weeks, a power-sharing agreement was finalized with Gerry Adams, the leader of the Catholic-dominated Sinn Fein party. Paisley and Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Party leader, began serving as the top two officials in the government.
The deal brought to fruition a 10-year-old agreement known as the Good Friday accord of 1998, hammered out after unprecedented involvement by then- President Bill Clinton. That agreement set the framework for the new government, and required all paramilitary forces to give up their weapons.
Paisley faced opposition from Protestant elements even more extreme than his own past intransigence. Still, he kept his word. Quinn kept her word as well, and is working in New York to encourage investment in funds that can fuel economic development there.
You don’t forget decades of oppression and strife overnight, and you don’t blindly trust those who so recently were complicit in imposing on the Catholic minority an apartheid state. But those of us in New York also must do our part to assist those in Northern Ireland who are committed to working together for political and economic progress.
The test now at hand is whether the current peace holds, whether incoming Unionist leaders continue the power-sharing that Paisley at long last embraced, and whether the promise of economic progress focuses people away from past strife and toward a united future.
It is an opportunity to be embraced, a challenge to be confronted and a lesson to be learned as we celebrate, for the first time in decades, a St. Patrick’s Day in peace.
If people in other nations embroiled in strife no less bitter and complicated than the generations-old enmity in Northern Ireland can learn these lessons as well, this St. Patrick’s Day will bring a unique ray of hope far beyond the Emerald Isle.
O’Dwyer, a lawyer in the Manhattan firm of O’Dwyer and Bernstien, LLP, is chairman of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center.