- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2000

The grounds of an Irish pub seem an unlikely school room for one of Northern Ireland's most respected leaders, but it was there that John Hume learned one of his first lessons in politics. He was only 10 years old when his father took him to a pub up the street from his home in Derry. Outside, men were shouting and waving the Irish flag. "Don't get involved in that stuff son. You can't eat a flag," his father, who was unemployed at the time, told him.

Several decades later, Mr. Hume, winner of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize and leader of the Social Democratic Labor Party, sat once again in a pub-turned-classroom. Only at this rather deserted corner of the Dubliner here in Washington, he was the teacher. The problem, he said, was that "the politics of Northern Ireland has been about flag-waving. National flags should be the symbol of unity," he told The Washington Times Wednesday. "I'm not looking for victory for those I represent."

Indeed, this Catholic peacemaker has never found much to gain through sectarian affinities or finger pointing. Even though he first came to public attention when he led a protest in 1968 against the overrepresentation of the Protestants in the government of Derry, he has repeatedly risked isolation from the Sinn Fein as well when he has spoken out against the IRA. The Unionists would also show him their disapproval when he entered into secret talks with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in 1993 negotiations which would later help revive the stalled peace process.

So when he meets with President Clinton today to talk about the current impasse in the Northern Irish peace process, he said he finds no need to place the blame on either the Protestant Unionists or the Catholic Sinn Fein. The Unionists, led by David Trimble, are reluctant to sit in a shared Northern Irish government with Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, before they have gotten rid of their arms. Sinn Fein meanwhile has defended the IRA's refusal to disarm. The 72-day-old shared government was suspended Feb. 11 by Northern Ireland's Secretary of State Peter Mandelson after the IRA had shown little progress in the decommissioning of arms as agreed to in the Good Friday peace accords.

That doesn't mean that there is no solution to the current stalemate. "The hope lies in the fact that all parties want to see it resolved," he said. Having risked his life and reputation for this cause, he knows enough about the history of the Ulster conflict to not put the resolution on a timeline though. And at this point, even with Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, Mr. Trimble, Mr. Adams, and Mr. Mandelson in Washington this week, the process is at best a waiting game.

In a press conference Friday morning, Mr. Mandelson confessed: "I am growing impatient with the parties . . . I'm not going to wait indefinitely," for them to decide to compromise, he said. Mr. Adams agreed he didn't see a great likelihood of breakthrough in the meetings in Washington this week, and Mr. Trimble, usually optimistic, said the "omens are not terribly encouraging." Even the White House was cautious about making any predictions of what would come from today's meeting with the Irish and Northern Irish leaders at the White House.

But back in the Dubliner Wednesday night, Irish Americans were trying to scrape up what hope they could over their brew of choice. Catholic leader Seamus Mallon and Mr. Trimble stood by as $50,000 was raised for the families of victims and survivors of the Troubles, a period from 1968 to 1994 when sectarian violence was responsible for around 3,600 deaths.

Remembering the victims and the heroes of Ulster's fight for peace provide crucial tools needed for creating an atmosphere of compromise, though they may not provide the direct solution to the current crisis facing the peace process.

As Irish poet Thomas Davis aptly put it: "If we live influenced by the wind, and sun, and tree, and not by the passions and deeds of the past, we are a thriftless and hopeless people."

For those who are tired of compromising, for those who find it futile to put one more deal on the table, consider the alternative. Frustration with the stalemate cannot result in quitting at the cost of another 3,000 lives. Remember Mr. Trimble, who for the sake of peace offered to resign his post as head of the shared executive rather than see the peace process be compromised. Remember Mr. Hume, who after being shot down by a policeman's flare in a crowd of several thousand protesters around a police station, arranged for the the policemen's escape. Remember that the people of Ulster voted "yes" to the Good Friday accord, and with it, they voted for peace. This St. Patrick's Day, pray that hatred and exhaustion does not swallow the will of the people of Northern Ireland. Remember Ulster's victims and toast its heroes.

Sarah Means is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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