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The Personal War

Experts and Private Citizens Say Peace in Northern Ireland Won't Come From a Political Agreement but, Rather, the People


She remembers hunger, 12 years without a single piece of meat, three years behind an iron door, walking silently in circles inside a women's prison. The pain seems heavy in her bones, and a piece of Bridie Letzer's heart lies buried in all the graves of Northern Ireland.

It will take more than a peace agreement to heal such wounds, to balance generations of strife and suffering with cohesion and acceptance. It will take amends, says Letzer, 74, a Catholic from Northern Ireland now living in Northridge. It will take justice, and it will take forgiveness.

Peace is not like war. It cannot be legislated. Jerry Jordan, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Cincinnati, says the proposed peace agreement in Northern Ireland, if approved, will be effective only if more personal issues are addressed in the lives of people who have lived so long in conflict.

"Because a number of politicians endorse an agreement, does that mean that on a personal level people will start getting along? Is that sufficient reason by itself for people who have been engaged in violence against each other to all the sudden start not wanting to kill each other? The answer is clearly no."

Something else must happen on a more personal level, Jordan says. It must happen when Catholics sit next to Protestants on buses in Belfast, when unionist children play with nationalist children on the playground.

"You can't just throw people together and expect them to get along, but if you can get them in situations where they really perceive their interest to be shared or perceive themselves to be working for some common goal, then that will work."

If voters in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland approve referendums on May 22, the sense of cooperation between political leaders, between north and south, east and west, Protestants and Catholics must filter down to neighborhoods, where many live and pray in a divided land.

Sean Byrne, a professor of conflict resolution and international relations at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., grew up primarily in the Republic of Ireland. His family lives in Northern Ireland.

A key point in peace building will have to do with grass-roots community empowerment, he says, part of a holistic process that addresses economically sustainable development, education, religion, culture and gender.

As with racism in America, it involves breaking down stereotypes, structuring interaction between communities, establishing shared goals and common tasks. In 1991, Byrne did a study of school integration in Northern Ireland and found that initially Protestant and Catholic students viewed each other in accordance with stereotypes handed down through generations: "They've got devil tails. They've got devil horns."

But by the time they reached their final years in school, students were able to see each other through new eyes. The schools were established, says Byrne, because parents wanted to reach across historical barriers.

In such ways, changes already have begun, and it is the political leadership that has lagged behind.

"My own feeling is that the people have willed this to happen, and the politicians are the ones who are struggling to catch up," says Kevin O'Neill, co-director of the Irish Studies Program at Boston College.

"I don't want to take anything away from the politicians. It has taken great courage and creativity to do what they have done, but the real lesson that will be drawn from this by historians is that the Irish people, Catholics and Protestants, both saw the futility of protecting or advancing their positions through violence, and it was that recognition, and sadly, I think, it was recognition that partly comes out of exhaustion of 25 years of mayhem."

O'Neill says attitudes have changed in those 25 years. The struggle has changed. And if, in fact, there comes lasting peace to Northern Ireland, it will be forged by forces greater than bullets. It will come from an unsettling and universal reality, as evident in Belfast as in the streets of Los Angeles: Children are waging war.

"People my age, in their 40s, are saying that although they had been willing to participate in struggle through their entire adult lives, they were unwilling to subject their children to the same process," O'Neill says. "And it was because of that that these mature, hardened people were interested in pursuing a negotiated peace instead of a victory."

Bruce Kagan, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA and former director of the Specialized In-Patient Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Unit at the UCLA Medical Center, says children are more deeply affected by violence and trauma than adults.

"They bear long-lasting scars and some would even say personality changes," Kagan says. "It's why many of us are so concerned about the violence that goes on here in the United States in urban areas, because we're concerned we're raising a generation of extremely scarred children."

Ask Bridie Letzer about such scars.


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