Comment: Baker’s remarks about Catholics versus Protestants disparage the peace they made 25 years ago

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Councilor Frank Baker recently raised the specter of the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland when he objected to a new map of Boston City Council districts proposed by Councilor Liz Breadon of Brighton. Baker’s comments that Breadon’s map was an “all-out assault on Catholic life in Boston” led by “a Protestant from Fermanagh” were particularly insidious.

Baker’s comments date back to a century ago, when Yankee Protestants and Irish Catholics vied for political control of Boston. His remarks were roundly reprimanded by government officials, the Catholic Archdiocese, the media and neighborhood residents. Beyond attempting to incite religious bigotry, Baker also ignored decades of work by Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland and elsewhere to craft a peace that has now been in place for nearly 25 years.

Our era has seen very few successful examples of international conflict resolution. The healing of the violent division between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland in May 1998 is one of them, a rare case of parties to a major conflict agreeing on a peace process that we can today qualify as successful. But it wasn’t easy.

Ireland was under the rule of the United Kingdom for centuries with occasional rebellions which were crushed by more powerful British armies. After World War I, with Britain weakened, the Irish launched a war that resulted in the creation of the independent Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland). But during negotiations, 6 of the island’s 32 counties, all in the north with larger Protestant populations, remained within the UK. Nevertheless, the Republic of Ireland has asserted from its inception that Northern Ireland is a sovereign part of the republic.

Protestant governance in Northern Ireland resulted in laws preventing some Catholics from voting as well as gerrymandered districts which limited Catholic representation in government. Protestants controlled all levels of government and dominated the labor market, especially the police. They made it illegal to fly the flag of the Republic of Ireland and banned the Irish nationalist political party.

The global political activism of the 1960s, particularly the civil rights struggles in America, inspired Catholic activists in Northern Ireland. Indeed, Martin Luther King is considered a hero by the Catholics who live there.

The year 1969 marked a serious turn for the worse on the island of Ireland. In mid-August, the so-called Battle of the Bogside broke out in the northern city of Derry. Riots erupted for several days following a violent police crackdown on a civil rights march which led to the British army being brought to the scene of the conflict.

The presence of troops inflamed the situation and, for the next 30 years, what became known as “The Troubles” saw paramilitary groups clash; terrorist attacks; the elimination of civil rights; hunger strikes; assassinations; 45ft high ‘Peace Walls’ that divided Catholic and Protestant areas of Belfast into backyards and streets with turnstile walls closed off at night; and some 3,500 dead.

Over time, efforts to address Northern Ireland’s sectarian issues produced momentum towards peace, including a joint decision by the UK and Ireland that the governance of Northern Ireland was now to include Protestants and Catholics, and that a change in the status of Northern Ireland (i.e. whether it is part of the United Kingdom or Ireland) would be determined by a future vote of the people of Northern Ireland.

In the mid-1990s, discussions involving Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States resulted in the “Good Friday Agreement”, which created a power-sharing government and cross-border cooperation. It was approved in May 1998 by 71% of voters in Northern Ireland.

As a result of the agreement, Codman Square Health Center was chosen as the site for programs that brought Protestant and Catholic community leaders to the United States to work together on community-building projects, primarily youth programs and public health initiatives. Codman Square, which had experienced racial animosity following the desegregation decision in 1974, was seen as an innovative place that could bring enemies of Northern Ireland together to work together in a place that echoed their own experiences.

The feelings of Protestants and Catholics who came to Codman Square about the division ran deep. Although the participants agreed to be in cross-cultural courses, they still harbored mistrust towards each other. Yet most put that aside to try to build relationships that could make peace a reality.

On one such visit, a Protestant woman from Belfast who had to suddenly move from her home when the name of her policeman husband was found on a list of people to be murdered by the Irish Republican Army, told me informed that she did not want to work with the Catholic man she was paired with. She could not get over her bitterness over the loss of her home and the threats to her family.

I encouraged her to take the program, and later she told me that she had come to love this man and considered him a friend. A few years later, the woman’s husband came “to see the place that helped transform [his] family.” He had left the police to become a Presbyterian minister promoting the peace process.

Other aspects of this work have taken me to go to Northern Ireland and share with Catholic and Protestant groups about living in a multicultural community, working in an organization with multicultural staff and working with their strengths desegregating police to fight crime.

I have also been asked to observe sectarian marches, so that in the event of a conflict, there are neutral observers who tell the real story of how it happened. In the decade I have been involved, each year seemed to bring more tolerance and more peace. Overwhelmingly, the people I met, both Protestant and Catholic, were determined to make the peace process work, and that has been going on for 25 years.

Frank Baker’s remarks denigrated the decades of work by Catholics and Protestants who have found the grace to put the past behind them and achieve peace in Northern Ireland. His attempt to resurrect an era that most of us thought was long buried smacks of demagoguery. In this time of political division, we need leaders who promote the daily hard work of advancing peace.

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