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By Sid Ryan
It took 317 years since the famous Battle of the Boyne, but finally the political leadership of the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland have reached an historic power-sharing agreement.
Ian Paisley, Protestant Democratic Unionist Party leader, and Sinn Fein’s nationalist leader Gerry Adams may not have shaken hands, but their message was unmistakably clear: the long-suffering citizens of Northern Ireland Catholic and Protestant want to live in peace under a Northern Ireland Assembly that British Prime Minister Tony Blair had threatened to dissolve.
They finally made good on the historic 1998 Good Friday agreement to share power, remove weapons from the hands of paramilitary organizations and recognize the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.
Unfortunately, it comes too late for the 3,200 men, women and children who died in the troubles of the last 40 years.
The seeds of that conflict were sown 800 years ago when invading English armies began the colonization to eradicate Irish culture while harvesting its resources.
The period most remembered and reviled for its barbarity was the mid-1600s, when Oliver Cromwell’s army of 12,000 slaughtered, first, thousands of Irish Catholic men, women and children in the garrison town of Drogheda and then the Catholic peasants in Wexford, who were armed with mere sticks and pitchforks.
Almost 200 years later, the potato famine and its aftermath cut the Irish population practically in half. Hundreds of thousands died from starvation, dysentery and scurvy, while others fled to America by the tens of thousands on the coffin ships.
All of these incidents gave rise to a drive for independence from Britain, culminating in the Easter Uprising in 1916. The execution by Britain of the leaders created an outpouring of support for them and their cause.
The unstoppable and often violent push for independence led to the Free State formed with 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties. The remaining six counties formed Northern Ireland, where the majority of residents were Protestant and loyal to the British crown.
It is in these six counties that the troubles began in 1967. The minority Catholic population suffered discrimination in housing, jobs, voting rights and many other areas of civil life. Their peaceful marches were met with violence by some members of the Loyalist community, violence that was often overlooked by the mainly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).
The streets became a battleground for change and its citizens became cannon fodder. Murders, mutilations, car bombings, petrol bombings and riots took a heavy toll on Catholics and Protestants alike.
I recall being part of a Canadian delegation that was on the streets of Northern Ireland amidst the turmoil of the so-called marching season of 1998. The Protestant Orange Order insisted on marching from Drumcree church down through the Catholic Garvaghy Road community. The British army had installed massive fortifications of 12-foot high steel barriers, 10-foot deep moats and miles of razor wire to prevent a bloodbath.
But the bloodbath came and brought the country to its senses. Jason, age 7, Mark, 9, and 10-year-old Richard Quinn were murdered when a petrol bomb was tossed through their bedroom window in the dead of night. The intent was to drive their mother a Catholic out of the mainly Protestant community where she was living with her Protestant partner.
The Orange Order refused to call off the protest in Drumcree and suffered world condemnation as a result. The political sands finally began to shift.
Into the breach stepped two bitter enemies, steeped in centuries of Green and Orange warfare, with the mantle of peace hanging heavy around their shoulders. As the most unlikely couple on the world stage today, only Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams can lead the way out of the troubles and into a peaceful and prosperous future for the long-suffering people of Northern Ireland.