Violence continues in Northern Ireland, offical and unofficial observers in both England and Ireland argue, at least in part because money, guns, and -- most important -- moral support continue to flow from Irish Americans in the United States.
Now a private Irish organization, Cooperation North, has launched a nonpolitical, nondenominational, and nongovernmental campaign to give Irish- Americans a better understanding of the situation in that troubled land.
In Chicago between stops in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, New York, and Washington, Cooperation North chairman Brendan O'Regan told the Monitor: "We will have violence in Ireland until there is a change in viewpoint here in the United States."
Because Irish-Americans have prospered and outnumber the 4.5 million Northern and Southern Irish 5 to 1, says Dr. O'Regan, "Whatever is endorsed here tends to be perpetuated over there, even though 95 percent or more of the people of Ireland reject violence as a solution to our problem "
Two years after it was started in Dublin with funds provided by leading Northern and Sourthern banks and industries, Cooperation North has made steady progress. It set out first to document existing economic and social cooperation between North and South -- and then to find ways to increase this cooperation.
Surprising many of the groups he meets with the US, O'Regan points out that cooperation has continued throughtout the worst of the violence. Many trade unions, churches, sporting groups, banks, industries, and professional bodies operate on an all-Ireland basis. Cooperation North has helped increase this contact through "twinning" town, arranging exchange tours for a wide variety of groups, promoting lower air fares between North and South, and encouraging North-South trade.
These reconciliation efforts, says O'Regan, all build on " the concept that we should be good neighbors on our island." He believes that "the more reconciliation of differences we achieve outside the political arena, the easier it will become for the politicians to work together in the future.
Key to O'Regan's efforts is his own background as a former director of both Bord Failte, the Irish Tourist Board, and Shannon Development, which built a highly successful industrial park around Shannon Airport in the west of Ireland. O'Regan feels that the same professional approach used to boost Irish tourism and industry should be applied to reconciling North and South -- and winning over Irish-Americans.
In its drive to convince Irish-Americans that Northern Protestants and Southern Roman Catholics can work together well, Cooperation North is sponsoring a joint visit to the US by the lord mayors of Belfast and Dublin in April. The message for Americans, says O'Regan, will be that "there is a far, far better way than violence -- and that is to move North and South forward together, to develop our economy together, accepting our political and religious differrences while promoting the whole island together."
This reconciliation message, o'Regan admist, is "far more complex than the [ illegal] IRA's message of 'Brits out, peace in, guns for the IRA.'"
Already Cooperation North's muted, professional approach has won considerable support in Ireland. Dublin's influential Irish Times editorialized last year that the new organization "seeks not to convert, but only to introduce."
Introductions have been blocked in the past by the argument that political development must come first. Northern Protestants ask for British political guarantees that Northern Ireland won't be abandoned, while many Roman Catholic leaders seek a formal British declaration of support for eventual Irish unification. These contending parties feel trust and reconciliation can't develop even in nonpolitical areas until the politcal future is agreed on. O'Regan, however, feels that better understanding can develop in many areas without waiting for political changes.
This soft-spoken Irishman is determined to convince Irish-Americans that their sincere efforts to help too often have been misdirected. "The solution for this problem is going to be good for America and very good for Ireland, O'Regan insists, because it will prove that "we Irish are not destined forever to be disgracing ourselves in t he eyes of the world."