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Jewish World Review May 30, 2000 / 25 Iyar, 5760

Cal Thomas

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Northern Ireland's Gen-Next

http://www.jewishworldreview.com --
Belfast, NORTHERN IRELAND -- Eight members of the next generation that will rule Northern Ireland gather at my request at city hall for conversation. The youngest is 22; the oldest is 33. They represent the major parties fighting for power and either change or the status quo. What amazes is how quickly and early they become set in their views.

Martin Morgan, 33, and a member of the Social and Democrat Labor Party (SDLP), illustrates the problem in a story he tells: "I recently met a child who could only have been (in third or fourth grade). He saw my (political party) badge, but couldn't make it out, so he said, `Are you Sinn Fein?' `No,' I said, `I'm SDLP.' `F-off, you bastard,' he said. When I was his age, I knew nothing, but the black process for him had already begun.''

Morgan adds, "There's bigotry, beliefs and opinions that have been bred into us from our childhood. I think our generation will lose that agenda on the way to the finishing line, but it's the responsibility of people of our generation to start from day one with their children to change that indoctrination.''

Easier said than done. David Alderdice, 32, and a former lord mayor of Belfast, says that only 4 percent of Northern Ireland is integrated and in many ways is more segregated by geography and schools than it was 10 years ago.

Philip Dean, 29, and secretary of the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), picks up on Alderdice's point. A unionist who favors a continuation of British sovereignty in Northern Ireland, Dean sounds pessimistic: "Sometimes I worry if it is already too late for my generation to get past the bigotry, the prejudice, the baggage that everybody carries. I wonder how much our education system has to do with it? In many ways the first time a nationalist and a unionist come together is at the university, and by then things are too embedded in them.''

Since only about 3 percent even attend university, it is possible to spend all of one's formative years without seeing or speaking to anyone who holds different views from one's own about politics and religion.

Eoin O'Broin, 28, is a member of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. O'Broin believes "it's a myth that we don't understand each other.'' He says the debate needs to move from a mind-set of one side having victory over the other to compromise. But the nationalists and unionists can't even agree on seemingly simple things. The unionists want to keep flying the Union Jack on government buildings. The nationalists say the Irish flag ought to be displayed alongside, or there should be no flags at all. The unionists say this is unrealistic because no sovereign nation does such a thing. And so it goes, even in polite company.

Michelle Bostock, 22, a member of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the youngest in the group, feels cynicism creeping up on her: "I used to be optimistic (about peace prospects). Now, I'm not so sure.'' How quickly one is infected.

Kate Fearon, 30, a member of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition (NIWC), says she will leave the country if the current round of negotiations does not lead to a peace settlement. "I'm tired of others determining how I will live my life,'' she says.

Most don't want to leave. This island is their home, whether they were born in the North or the South of Ireland. The sticking point is their different histories, religions, cultures and politics. The trick to making peace is for them to realize they can't go on this way. Talking to each other instead of past each other is a relatively recent experience, and more of it is needed. But since the latest troubles have been going on for the last 30 years, and the history of the conflict dates back to the early part of the last millennium, that will not be easy.

Perhaps the most optimistic sound is heard from Peter Weir, 31, an assemblyman in the Northern Ireland Parliament, who tells me that even if the Good Friday agreement should fail to be implemented by the politicians (71 percent of all Ireland voted for it), "there is no appetite for a return to war as we've known it for the last 30 years.''

There doesn't have to be. A tiny minority of lovers of violence and haters of people has held Northern Ireland hostage. It doesn't take that many if they've been carefully taught to hate.

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