By Tom McEnery
America’s ties with Ireland are poised for a historic advance beyond sentimental St. Patrick’s Day links with “the old country” to a new stage of economic and social development.
For the most part, the stage is set. The independent Republic of Ireland, which includes all but the six Northern Ireland counties still part of Great Britain, is undergoing a period of self-examination and renewal.
President Mar Robinson, elected two years ago to what once was a ceremonial position, now personifies the energy of the new Ireland and its willingness to question elements of the Irish identity long unchallenged, such as the relationship of church and state and the always vexing issue of emigration.
Irish voters showed a deliberate orientation to a new future with their strong vote last summer in favor of the Maastricht Treaty, reflecting the republic’s growing international importance as a member of the 12-nation, single-market European Community and a trading partner of great value to the United States.
Here in Silicon Valley, we have recognized the increasing significance of Ireland as a gateway to the new Europe.
In 1986, San Jose became Dublin’s first Sister City, a relationship that since contributed to profitable new economic ties between Ireland and California, fertile fields for our Intels and Apples and joint ventures on many educational community projects using the unique talents of both societies.
Americans looking to Ireland, though, too often have viewed the island through a single lens: “The Troubles.” The Northern Ireland conflict presaged neo-ethnic violence in Europe by two decades.
When I recently visited a Belfast community center, a staffer described divided neighborhoods as predominantly Catholic or Protestant, admitting, “Here, ‘predominantly’ means 100 percent.”
A Northern Ireland solution along lines contemplated in the talks convened recently, involving all sides of North and South, offers a possibility for a historic peace.
On my recent trip to Belfast, London and Dublin, I discussed this issue with Sir. Patrick Mayhew, Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, and John Hume, Northern Ireland’s leading Catholic politician. I became convinced of good intentions on all sides, but in Ireland, intentions can be, shall we say, “elastic.”
There is more chance for success now even in the face of past failures.
In October, two members of the Northern Ireland parliament stopped in San Jose. Joe Hendron and Cedric Walker – one a Catholic, the other a Protestant – followed the distinguished-visitor circuit, remarkable itself as the first joint American visit of such prominent leaders of Belfast’s two communities.
More remarkable to me was a moment in my living room, as we watched the third presidential debate on TV. After sharing a laugh at Ross Perot’s quirky performance, we listened to Bill Clinton’s closing statement.
A visitor said, “By god, that’s just the way we feel in the North. Optimistic, for a change.”
As the others agreed, I felt a weakening in the borders that exist in Irish minds and hearts, as real as any physical frontier between North and South.
There is a special role for American good will and understanding to play in the cessation of hatred and mistrust in Northern Ireland.
Divisions that are centuries old cannot be solved in a few months, of course and the United States has wisely expressed its patient support for the “strand negotiation” process.
Most important are new American ties with all Ireland – economic and educational, hardheaded and self-interested – but finally a mature relationship beyond the wearing of the green or the orange.
Our talents and resources can contribute to resurgence of an Ireland where economic development would continue, where children would have computers on their desks, not bombs in their hands.
A fresh start can get us beyond the fractures of Irish history, for as Yeats puts it, “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone; it’s with O’Leary in the grave.”
Beyond the history and the poetry, America can help build a new Ireland.