Ireland has always been Easter’s nation. For Christians, the holiday marks not the end of Jesus’ ministry but the beginning of a new covenant with God. Easter is an offer of salvation, not salvation itself. In this century, the Irish republic came to life only through Britain’s defeat of the 1916 Easter Rising. Last week’s Good Friday agreement came to life only after 30 years of sectarian violence and a death toll that includes 3,200 people and the hopes of two generations.
Easter 1998 marks an offer of salvation for the people of Northern Ireland. If people there, especially political leaders, choose love, hard work and risk, peace might one day reign. The easy path of continued mistrust, hatred and violence still beckons. Ireland’s history rings through its songs, a collective battle call that sings of the trenches dug within Irish hearts. Putting down the gun requires history’s aggrieved to stop feeling sorry for themselves and their ancestors. Victimhood drives much of Ulster politics, and history’s wrongs spread so bountifully over the green hills of Ireland that everyone can claim a victim’s mantle.
But no revenge can absolve the 14 Irish shot dead on Bloody Sunday or the 19 English bombed to death in the attack on Lord Mountbatten. The songs of past wrongs now threaten to consume Ireland’s future. Already, some in Ulster want to turn the Good Friday agreement into a replay of the past. “Remember what happened to Michael Collins,” read graffiti directed at republican leader Gerry Adams after the agreement was announced. Collins negotiated Ireland’s home rule after the 1916 Easter Rising, buying statehood for Ireland at the price of compromise with the British. For this he was killed by the radical republicans who lost the resultant Irish Civil War.
Adams in 1998 is not Collins in 1921. Comparing the men and their times insults the memory of Collins and the vision of Friday’s agreement. Many of Ireland’s stifling political traditions will be abandoned if the agreement is fulfilled. Both England and Ireland have renounced centuries-old claims to Ulster in favor of local sovereignty. The agreement requires republicans to abandon hopes of uniting the island while unionists must accept a role for Dublin in Ulster’s government. Moderation and compromise triumphed in Ireland this Easter, and that itself represents a break with Ulster’s past.
Easter offered Christ’s disciples only dire prospects. Theirs was a faith founded in love and trust, facing the might of the world’s greatest empire. The faith prospered not because it could defeat the arms of Rome, but because it overcame fear of Roman authority. This Easter, the Irish of Ulster have a chance to build a future of trust. But trusting one another won’t come easy to the people of Northern Ireland. They’ve spent too long killing each other and mourning the dead. Ulster’s leaders, the same men who once ordered the killing and exploited the mourning, can’t build a new Ireland on their own. Now is the time for the widowed mothers, the wounded soldiers, the orphaned children and every other scion of Ireland’s miseries, including the millions of Americans born here only because of a famine there, to add their voices to the new song of Ireland’s future.