Kevin Cullen: Maintaining Belief In Peace Aided N. Ireland's Transformation

Roundup: Talking About History

It was poignant and fitting that the Catholic priest, the Rev. Alec Reid, was one of the two clergymen who came forward yesterday to verify that the Irish Republican Army had gotten rid of its hidden arsenal.

Reid knows first-hand the terrible power of those weapons, and the transforming power of dialogue and reconciliation.

In March 1988, he knelt over the bodies of two British soldiers who had been executed by the IRA after stumbling into an IRA funeral cortege in Belfast. The lynching of the two corporals was the climax of a furious two-week period of bloodletting, in which the barbarity and futility of the violence in Northern Ireland had been put in tragic focus: All sides in the conflict Irish republicans, British loyalists, and the security forces had been victims and victimizers.

While most people wrung their hands in desperation or cheered the violence visited upon their mortal enemies at the time, Reid had arranged the first secret meeting between Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA's political wing Sinn Fein, and John Hume, the moderate nationalist leader, a moment many historians now regard as the beginning of the peace process in Northern Ireland. As Reid administered the last rites to the dying soldiers, some of their blood soaked through his priestly garb, staining documents he had been ferrying between Adams and Hume, hauntingly underscoring what was at stake.

Yesterday, Reid and a Methodist minister, the Rev. Harold Good, stepped forward at a news conference outside Belfast to say they had witnessed the IRA's disarming, and that they believed the IRA was being truthful and the independent commission overseeing disarmament was accurate in announcing that the IRA had "put beyond use" its bombs, guns, and bullets.

In ridding itself of its weapons, the IRA has by some estimates completed the transformation of Irish republicanism from a vanguard revolutionary movement to a democratic political machine, one that since the IRA cease-fire of 1994 has come to represent most Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland and now wants to become a power broker in the politics of the Irish Republic.

"It is the clearest signal ever that the IRA's armed campaign is over," Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, said in a joint statement.

Protestant unionists, including the Rev. Ian Paisley, the fundamentalist preacher who leads the Democratic Unionists, the biggest party in Northern Ireland, were skeptical. Paisley dismissed the pronouncements of retired Canadian General John de Chastelain, head of the independent commission overseeing disarmament, as unverifiable, and the witness borne by the Catholic and Protestant clergymen as irrelevant.
Not everybody wanted the IRA to disarm. Seven weeks ago, sitting in the small Belfast row house she shares with her 79-year-old mother, Patsy Canavan said she hoped the IRA kept a few guns around. The Canavans live on Bombay Street, not far from Clonard Monastery. In 1969, the Canavans and all the other Catholics on Bombay Street were burned out of their homes by loyalist mobs, who simply walked in and took over while the police stood back.

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