Old questions, different landscape

Mine was a safe, ordinary, suburban upbringing in Dublin during the 1960s and 1970s. The Troubles came to me over the radio or in television reports. Distant somehow and yet the stories still haunted me: the bombings, the kneecappings, the shootings. Tar and feather. Semtex. Miami Showband. Images – and language – from another place.


But these were people of my island, so surely every terror that belonged to them also belonged to me.


My mother was originally from Northern Ireland, so we visited in summertime. It was a strange land to a child. Why were the postboxes of my cousins coloured red, while mine were green? What was the purpose of the mirror slid in under the bus when we travelled north? What were the signals given out by the radio tower on the hill? Why were there soldiers crouching in the hedges?


Nine years old, I wore an old blue anorak as I walked around the family farm. The sleeve had long been ripped and my mother had months before sewn on a Dublin badge to cover the hole. I wore it proudly, but when my uncle brought me to the town of Garvagh to buy some hay bales, he told me to turn my jacket inside out. “Why?” I asked. He looked up the street to where some soldiers stood at a barricade. I turned the jacket inside. When I got up the next morning, the badge had been taken from the sleeve and the hole darned. Nobody said a word.


I heard of an older relative who lived in the nearby village of Swatragh. She used all of her extra savings to buy duvet blankets which she soaked every night, deep in her bathtub. “Why?” I asked. Nobody answered until, later, another cousin pulled me aside and said that the woman feared a firebomb coming through her window while she slept. With the wet blankets, she would be able to put out the flames.


I tried – as a child – to understand these things. I would beseech my parents to explain to me what was going on. “Ach, it's just sad,” my mother would say. My father gently deflected debate to other things. In my teenage years the poets salved it a little – Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, John Montague – but I never felt quite able to articulate what it meant to grow up so close to a culture of undefined hatred.


As I grew up and travelled away, eventually to New York, I found that trying to explain the politics of Northern Ireland to others was impossible. Whose god were these people fighting for? Why did justice sound like another word for revenge? How could I explain that a simple badge meant that I came from somewhere that others did not?


The dim hope of growing older is that we can still become better men or women. On seeing the recent photographs of Adams and Paisley, one couldn't help but think there is a second, and perhaps third, act in Irish lives, even if it's one fraught with complication.


There wasn't a whole lot of publicity in the United States for the powersharing agreement, certainly not as much as one might have hoped: the Iraq war again took the front pages.


And yet there has always been a deep awareness, both in Ireland and elsewhere, of the enormous debt owed to a list of Americans who have been instrumental in the frightful process of explaining Northern Ireland, and even enabling it to change, from the very visible journey of the Clintons, to the brilliant interior manoeuvering of George Mitchell, to the relentless organising of newspaper editors like Niall O'Dowd, all the way to the silent and incredible generous ones like Loretta Brennan Glucksman, an American-born philanthropist who, as president of the American-Ireland Fund, has ploughed many, many millions of dollars into projects of peace and reconciliation in the North.


In the eerie light of prospective peace, even George Bush's failure to get involved in the question of Northern Ireland became a sort of success. His reticence, and his continual insistence on aligning himself against the Clinton legacy, has actually helped the process along. Bush and his cronies relegated it to the dustbin of history, closed the doors of the White House, and thereby further isolated the extremists. The freezing-out of some of the main players worked to the advantage of peace. When you've no friends around, even your enemy's worth talking to. Come in, Mr Paisley, it must be cold out and wet out there under George's umbrella.


Of course there are other lessons for America and Americans to learn from this fledgling peace, not least that there is no greater moment in war than the end of it. It is not entirely by failures that we are judged, but also by our moments of success. If the Bush administration could acknowledge this in any small way, it might be able to turn the tide of a few places in the Middle East around.


Even if it's a stretch, the current possibility of using Northern Ireland as a metaphor and also a signalling light is not one that should be lost on history or its makers.


As Senator Maurice Hayes – a great Irish voice of reason and tolerance – has said, the war might be over, but the peace is not yet won.