Approximately 30 students convened in the Goodrich living room last Tuesday evening to discuss the politics of Northern Ireland with Chair of Political Science Michael MacDonald.
The discussion was sponsored by the newly formed Williams Irish Cultural Society.
According to Pat Finn ’01, co-founder of the Irish Society, recent developments in the peace process in Northern Ireland prompted the group to organize the event.
“A discussion of the politics of Northern Ireland and the peace process going on there seemed especially appropriate considering the May signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which seeks to establish a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, and the recent awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to John Hume, a prominent leader of Catholics and tireless exponent of peace in the North, and David Trimble, a loyalist leader who has made strong strides towards peace,” Finn said.
MacDonald began his talk by attempting to gauge the crowd’s basic knowledge of Northern Irish affairs.
“Has everyone heard of the IRA, The Crying Game, The Boxer?” he asked. “You must have heard of these people called nationalists and these other people called loyalists.”
Since both nods of recognition and looks of perplexity swept over the crowd, MacDonald proceeded to give a short description of the political history of Northern Ireland. He traced the political history of Northern Ireland from events during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in England up through the controversies of the last three decades.
MacDonald then instructed the crowd that when trying to comprehend the present conflict in Northern Ireland “it helps to throw religion out the window.”
“The terms Catholic and Protestant do not describe religious views, so much as they describe political views,” he said. “Frankly, many of the people involved in violence in Northern Ireland are not very religious people. There’s joke in the North that goes: One night a man gets stopped in the dark by a gunman who asks him, ‘What’s your religion?’ Since it’s Northern Ireland, of course, you’re not going to say your religion because you don’t know whose hand is on the trigger. So the man answers, ‘I’m an atheist.’ To which the gunmen replies, ‘Which kind? A Protestant atheist or a Catholic Atheist?”
MacDonald said it is important to understand the meanings of the terms “nationalists” and “loyalists.”
He said nationalists define themselves in terms of their “Irishness.” They see Ireland as one nation, distinct from Great Britain. Loyalists on the other hand, define themselves in opposition to nationalists. They claim loyalty to Britain and British rule in Northern Ireland.
The recently signed Good Friday Agreement attempts to recognize these differences. According to MacDonald, such a strategy for peace was proposed back in 1974, but never came to fruition.
“The Good Friday Agreement, and its chief proponent John Hume, seek to accommodate the different communities, loyalists and nationalists, that exist in Northern Ireland,” said MacDonald. “They try to bring them all together in the same room, at the same table as a means of working out some of their differences. Particularly, the peace agreement tries to give Catholic nationalists a voice, so that they have less incentive to turn towards the IRA as a means of being heard.”
Although there is the possibility that the peace process might be derailed, MacDonald views it as less likely than in past years because the current peace agreement lacks many of the faults of its failed predecessors. In his view, the peace agreement improves the prospect for future peace in Northern Ireland , but defers the dream for a united Ireland.
MacDonald’s presentation was followed by a series of questions from students, ranging in subject from the role of Gerry Adams in the IRA to the issue of decommissioning IRA weapons.
Audience members found the talk to be informative and thought provoking.
Moira Shanahan ’01 said the talk “was a good introduction to a perplexing political dilemma. Professor MacDonald did a great job in giving the background information necessary to better understand the situation in Northern Ireland.”
David Glendinning ’99 echoed this sentiment.
“Professor MacDonald’s talk was clear, concise and to the point,” Glendinning said. “He really conveyed to the audience a real sense of what the Irish conflict is all about. It’s essential that important issues, such as peace in Northern Ireland, be discussed and debated here at Williams.”
The Irish Cultural Society, the sponsor of the event, was founded early this semester by several students, including Pat Finn ’01, Dan Sullivan ’01, Marie Glancy ’99 and Kathleen Higgins ’99.
Future talks about Irish culture, politics, history and literature are being planned for the Spring semester. There will also be an eight-week Irish Film Festival, including such films as The Quiet Man and The Crying Game, an Irish musical concert, Irish step-dancing lessons and more.
“We’ve gotten a great response since we started,” said Finn.. “It’s taken us a little while to get our feet wet, but things are moving along now and we encourage everyone to join us.”