Northern Ireland: Transforming a negative peace
Members of Congress, WIP Class of 2012 and other distinguished guests,
It is an honour to be invited to speak to you today.
I hope my accent does not distract you as much it did one of Congressman Murphy’s constituents a few days ago. Who when I answered the phone, asked me if I would stay on the line and read the phone book to her all afternoon.
If the Washington Ireland Program has taught me one thing, it is to be comfortable with who you are and where you want to go. My name is Lewis Mooney, I am from a Roman Catholic background but I am also a proud Unionist, a religion and political ideology that don’t usually mix. I am one of few Catholics that live in my area, at the last census over 90% of my town’s population were recorded as Protestants. I went to a predominantly Protestant school where we said Protestant prayers. However that is only one part of who I am, my family and many of my friends who have had a huge and beneficial influence on my thought process sign up to nationalist ideals. Many of them support parties who seek to secure a united Ireland.
As a Catholic I remain intimidated by the Protestant exclusivity of many unionist organisations. I for instance could not join the Orange Order, a group closely affiliated to both unionist parties.
I view myself as a Unionist for the future, rather than the past. I don’t base my political decisions on what has been and gone, who was hurt and who was right or wrong but on what is best for the future of Northern Ireland. However I have often felt lost in translation, I have never wanted to betray the community which I stem from or disappoint those who expect something from me. My views are forever changing as the contradictions within me challenge my outlook. The Washington Ireland Program has taught me that this process is ok, that my views don’t have to be concrete and that I am not weak by admitting I don’t have the best answer in the room.
However if as an individual I battle with my own thoughts every day, what must it be like in a wider community context? I am lucky that I live in a time and come from a family where these two conflicting identities would not lead to me being ostracised from my community. I can’t name a time when my ideas regarding the future of Northern Ireland have been reigned in or when who I am has stopped me reaching for an opportunity. However for some, this is still the reality. There are those from my generation who remain constrained by the shackles of their family’s background and past. Many young people cannot break away to form their own identity, they are one side or the other before they are considered human beings in their own right.
If I had been interning on the Hill or asked to make this speech twenty years ago, it would have been under very different circumstances. It would have been against a backdrop where one funeral merged into another as the procession of violence went on and on. Conversations regarding the pursuit of peace in Northern Ireland would have been echoing around these corridors. However during my time in America I have been struck by how many people think now that the guns have been put down all is well in Northern Ireland.
During this program we have also been exposed to the American experience of conflict, both past and present. President Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address spoke of the need “to bind up the nation’s wounds,” following the Civil War. He recognised the pain inflicted during a conflict, and the need for patience and action in the process of healing a nation. One hundred and fifty years on America has its first black president and the motto “E pluribus Unum,” meaning “out of many, one.” We in Northern Ireland are not yet one united nation, patience and action by all is still required. Emerging from the horrors of war requires a long healing process; it brings about real and human emotions, it necessitates the building of trust and understanding amongst individuals.
I come to you, the American people and politicians, with a plea for continued support in our journey towards peace in Northern Ireland. It is true to say Northern Ireland is no longer a relentless headline grabber in the global media like it once was when multiple killings and bombings provided a daily diet of negative news and images. Yes we have achieved a lot in the last fourteen years since the Good Friday Agreement and the American people have had a huge part to play in that journey. However there is still a long way to go in achieving a positive peace.
The desire for change is there, for example there is a park in Belfast, and it’s the only park in Europe to be divided by a wall. On one side Catholic children ride on the swings, on the other Protestant children play on the roundabout. In the last few months, money given by the International Fund for Ireland has allowed for the gate to be opened for a period each day. Before coming to Washington D.C, during my WIP service project I asked one woman who lives on the Catholic side what this meant for her. She said “It feels like the Berlin Wall coming down, finally we can lead a normal life. My son will be able to meet Protestant kids and realise that they aren’t so different.” The experience gave me a chill down my spine.
As the institutions which make up the Northern Ireland political system mature, people will look for more than survival; there is now an even greater expectation of delivery. In my lifetime I wish to realise a Northern Ireland where everybody is free of discrimination, where theyhave the opportunity to break through the barriers of fear and difference and the chance to realise their true potential like I and the other members of WIP have in the last two months.
In returning home I go with an aim, to respectfully and consistently challenge the priorities of politicians and people in grassroots communities. At the start of this process, WIP asked us, if the future was a book would you read it or would you write it? We are determined to write it.