“God help us if we go back”
Denver lawyer’s mission is a peace-by-peace effort
CROSSMAGLEN, Northern Ireland – Head south from Belfast to the
embattled green pastures and villages of County Armagh, and see
what Denver lawyer Jim Lyons is up against as he tries to secure
Five British soldiers crouching in full combat camouflage,
lugging machine guns, creep through the Crossmaglen market square.
Townspeople look away, shopping for fish, flowers, newspapers,
pushing small children in strollers.
Military helicopters clack overhead. A fortified brown tower,
surveillance camera swiveling on top, looms over the square.
One soldier listens through an earpiece. “It’s a normal
patrol,” he says on this recent spring morning, “like what police
would do in any town, any city in the world.”
Angry farmers in Paddy Short’s pub complain about helicopters
landing in their pastures. “The war won’t end,” 81-year-old
pubkeeper Short declares, “until the British soldiers leave.”
But from Britain’s perspective, military towers and regular
patrols, conducted by 15,000 British troops in Northern Ireland,
provide necessary protection. Crossmaglen lies in what the British
call “bandit country,” an Irish Republican Army-controlled region
where weapons are oiled, wrapped and stored in plastic containers
buried on farms.
British authorities say the bomb that killed 29 people in the
northwestern market town Omagh in August 1998 entered Northern
Ireland through this county. Earlier this month, 20 miles or so
west of here, an IRA splinter group tried to fire a mortar rocket
from a car into a Royal Ulster Constabulary police base.
Peace is faltering this Easter morning in Ireland, the
ancestral homeland of 44 million Americans.
The U.S.-brokered Good Friday Agreement, which two years ago
established a framework for the first lasting peace after
centuries of sectarian strife, is no longer a done deal. The
agreement set up a shared Catholic-Protestant government in
Northern Ireland, ending 78 years of British rule. The government
got started. But both sides balked at surrendering weapons.
Britain reimposed direct rule on Feb. 11. Tensions between
Protestants, who want to remain part of Britain, and Catholics,
who want to join the Republic of Ireland to the south, have risen
Enter Lyons, a special adviser to President Clinton on
Ireland, who went to Belfast this month to try to help turn things
It was the 35th trip to Ireland for Lyons, 53, who’s been a
close confidant of Clinton since the 1970s. More than seven years
of unpaid work here, his closeness to Clinton, his influence
bringing in $1.5 billion of investment through an international
foundation, and his dispute-resolution skills have won Lyons
access to all sides in the conflict, which since 1970 has claimed
3,500 lives. On this trip, Lyons met with deadlocked politicians,
urging them to stay the course toward compromise. He also worked
with community leaders on economic projects he believes are
crucial to ending Ireland’s “Troubles.”
Hard-line paramilitaries, Lyons said, are threatening an
uneasy equilibrium in Northern Ireland. Police report nearly one
political shooting a night, and four attempted attacks on security
forces over the past two months.
Yet Lyons believes most Irish people are motivated, beyond
politics by a desire to move ahead economically. He argues that
peace will lead to prosperity.
Lyons works behind the scenes in a personal, blunt-spoken way
that can clash with bureaucratic sensibilities. He refuses
security, and usually travels alone.
The hope is that sustained attention from a friend of
President Clinton can add heft to U.S. foreign policy. And in the
waning days of Clinton’s presidency this may be his best chance
for an uncontested foreign policy success. Clinton calls Ireland
to check on peace negotiations no less than once a week, said
Dermot Gallagher, a senior Irish government official and former
Irish ambassador to the United States, and sometimes twice a day.
Lyons’ task is “to remind people that there is an economic
stake in the peace process,” said Dick Norland, a National
Security Council supervisor in the White House. After former
U.S. Sen. George Mitchell stepped out of his negotiating role this
year, Lyons emerged as a key inside figure, said Gallagher.
“Jim Lyons is a player here, and is listened to very
attentively indeed,” Gallagher said. “The guy is fair.”
And he likes his fish and chips.
During a break between official meetings, Lyons bolted for
the bitterly torn Ardoyne neighborhood in West Belfast. There,
razor wire curls atop brick walls, metal barricades separate
homes, and paramilitary murals on sides of buildings are carefully
Lyons walked into the crowded Annie’s Home Bakery and Cafe on
the Crumlin Road dividing Catholic and Protestant sections.
The building was a burnt-out shell when Betty and Annie
McGuigan moved in a couple years ago. A $1,500 loan from a
micro-credit organization Lyons started gave them a boost. Banks
had rejected their project as too risky.
Lyons ordered. He began eating.
The McGuigan sisters approached, timidly, suspecting this
American in the blue business suit might be important. Lyons
handed them his card with its golden eagle seal. Betty McGuigan
informed Lyons proudly that, thanks in part to the loan, business
doubled over the past five months.
But to stay open, “we need to draw trade from both sides,”
Betty said, meaning Catholic and Protestant customers. That’s been
the secret to their success so far. A political stalemate that
drags on much longer could ruin everything. On Feb. 11,
British Prime Minister Tony Blair suspended Northern Ireland’s
10-week-old shared government – set up under the Good Friday deal
George Mitchell brokered – because the Irish Republican Army
refused to disarm by a May 22 deadline. Surrender of IRA weapons,
and the continuing British military presence, are primary
obstacles stalling peace.
Unionists who favor continued British rule contend Northern
Ireland shouldn’t begin to govern itself until the IRA gives up
its guns. Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, argues that
unionists should be satisfied with IRA assurances that weapons are
in storage and won’t be used.
After more than two months, this impasse and the government
shutdown leave political leaders such as Nobel Peace Prize winner
David Trimble, head of the Ulster Unionist Party, and Sinn Fein
leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, increasingly powerless.
While they occupy tomb-like offices in Stormont Castle, the
seat of Northern Ireland’s short-lived government, paramilitary
groups are active in neighborhoods. Royal Ulster Constabulary
police statistics show increased shooting incidents during the
first three months this year. Lyons’ main job on this trip was
to encourage the marginalized politicians, whom he worried might
be frustrated enough to lose heart.
His message: The United States will do anything it can to
facilitate compromise, and President Clinton cares passionately.
But time’s running out. The presidential election looms in the
United States. Restarting Northern Ireland’s government after the
May 22 deadline for getting rid of IRA weapons will be even harder
than it seems now.
Making his rounds to political leaders, Lyons met first with
Trimble at Stormont. Trimble acknowledged that, without
self-government, Northern Ireland “is going to miss out on
Lyons was convinced that Trimble is “very much committed to
going forward” in the coming weeks.
But Trimble faces dissent from hard-liners within his
unionist party. Those who demand IRA “guns before government”
constrain his ability to compromise.
And with a Protestant majority in Northern Ireland, there’s
plenty of support for not giving ground.
Consider the experience in Coleraine along Northern Ireland’s
north coast. In 1992, a phone call to police announced that the
town center complex would be blown apart in two hours. Police
cleared the area. A 50-pound IRA bomb exploded.
Memories of that attack still are fresh for residents such as
Michael Ferguson, owner of the Happy Haddock fish-and-chips shop.
No government’s possible, in his view, until the IRA disarms. And
he doesn’t expect that to happen.
“Back to square one,” said Ferguson, whose son plans to visit
Colorado Springs on a church exchange this summer to “just get
away” for awhile.
“There is no chance of keeping the government going,”
Ferguson said. “Optimism is going away.”
The next official stop for Lyons was moderate leader John
Hume, who shared the 1998 Nobel Peace prize with Trimble. A
63-year-old Catholic who heads the Social Democratic and Labor
Party, Hume has tried for three decades to bridge political
But Lyons found him physically weakened, recuperating from
two major surgeries.
Where Hume lives in Derry, people once struggling
economically are benefiting from peace. Since the Good Friday
agreement, companies such as Fruit of the Loom, DuPont and Sega
have opened plants, giving young people a chance to earn a living
without moving away.
The government must be up and running “as soon as possible,”
Hume said. In an interview, he called for compromise now.
The problem, he said, is continuing “distrust between two of
the parties, Sinn Fein and the unionists, which arises out of the
past.” Hume assured Lyons “we’re still working to break the
Lyons turned last to Sinn Fein. Party leader Martin
McGuinness greeted him, and nobody minced words.
Some sort of “constructive movement” is crucial, Lyons said.
McGuinness acknowledged that he knows what’s at stake.
“Unless we provide a stable political situation,” business
investment that Irish people need “isn’t going to be available.”
Yet McGuinness contended in an interview that it’s up to
unionist leaders “to face down their own rejectionists.” He blamed
the British government for “a terrible mistake” in suspending
Northern Ireland’s shared government.
Sinn Fein officials said that approaching IRA “hard men” and
asking for disarmament to revive the government would draw
But Lyons noted later that McGuinness in private talks
“didn’t rule out” some gesture. Lyons dined with economic leaders
including Sir George Quigley, chairman of the Ulster Bank and
former chief of Northern Ireland’s civil servants.
Business leaders are pressing political leaders to
compromise, Quigley said.
They point to the economic takeoff and improving standard of
living in southern Ireland, dubbed the “Celtic Tiger” in Europe.
“Provincialism and isolationism,” Quigley said, are holding
Northern Ireland back.
On the streets beneath Quigley’s Ulster Bank office that day,
a green tank rolled toward Belfast City Hall – not to attack but
to film a popular television sitcom called “Give My Head Peace.”
The show airs stereotypical sectarian views, much as “All In The
Family” exposed Archie Bunker’s racism, in hopes that humor might
ease tensions. In this episode, an actor portraying an elderly IRA
diehard drove the tank to Protestant diehards and offered it as a
gesture of peace.
Producer Colin Lewis said he’s counting on more than a
“God help us if we go back,” Lewis said.
Northern Ireland today actually “is a safe and reliable place
to do business,” said Mark Stevenson, chief executive of
Colorado-based EM Solutions, which invested about $28 million in a
factory in Lisburn, west of Belfast, that employs 479 workers.
Michael Best, managing director at the factory, said sectarian
tensions haven’t hindered production of computer and telecom
equipment. A strict no-politics policy forbids workers from
wearing soccer jerseys, because soccer rivalries reflect sectarian
“Everyone still has an opinion,” said Clifford Nettleship,
37, a Protestant foreman. “But because of the nature of our
politics, it’s not talked about on the shop floor. … If the most
powerful man on Earth (he means Clinton) takes an interest in your
local politics, you gotta think maybe something’s gotta be done.”
Lyons worked neighborhoods, too, trying to encourage
compromisers, hoping that high-level U.S. support of street-level
detente will avert violence.
He relies on his relatively neutral background, as an
Irish-American Catholic whose mother was descended from Northern
Ireland Protestants. He goes running regularly with an ex-prisoner
with ties to Protestant paramilitary groups. Most importantly, he
has a record of finding financial support for groups committed to
As the official U.S. liaison to the International Fund for
Ireland, which receives $20 million a year from the United States
and about $20 million more from Europe and Australia, Lyons
influences spending on major projects such as business-incubator
centers. The $1.5 billion in direct investment that the foundation
has leveraged since 1993 created some 30,000 jobs.
One of the latest projects Lyons set up is the Aspire
micro-credit loan program that gives loans to small businesses
that banks won’t help, such as Annie’s bakery in the Ardoyne.
Lyons checked in at Aspire’s central office.
“How many loans?” he asked Niamh Goggin, the local director.
“Ten.” All recipients were making their payments.
“Anything I can do to help?”
The challenge is converting people in the poorest
neighborhoods, Goggin said. “They don’t believe anyone will help
Lyons later dropped in on a hairdresser of African descent.
She recently received a small loan, used it to pay off debts for
her “Samara’ salon, and now is repaying the loan. She told Lyons
his micro-credit lenders “are the first ones who believed in me.”
Small businesses struggling now, she said, “are the ones that will
build up the community.”
Later, in a converted linen mill, Lyons shared a pint of
Guinness with Father Myles Kavanagh and Sister Mary Turley, who
run an array of social-services projects he helped fund. They
urged him to consider inviting Clinton to introduce Ireland’s
President Mary McAleese at a fund-raising event next month in
At a business-incubator facility that provides phones, faxes
and work space in east Belfast, he met fellow Denver Broncos fan
Gerry O’Reilly, 36, who graduated from high school in Denver.
O’Reilly moved home to Belfast for college, then launched a coffee
business. Now his Black Mountain Coffee sales are increasing
through the Internet. Young entrepreneurs in Belfast favor
political compromise and self-government, O’Reilly said. “I’m
depressed,” he said. “You can see a cloud coming over this place
again. … If it goes back to the way it was, I’d pack my bags and go.”
Lyons even worked Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams’
neighborhood, where veteran community worker Geraldine McAteer
handed him an 80-page draft proposal to create a business park and
asked for his opinion.
Because that’s a Catholic neighborhood, Lyons made a point of
following up with a visit to Shankill, a Protestant neighborhood
devastated economically when textile factories closed. It’s a
stronghold for paramilitary groups now.
Lyons checked in with unionist community leader Jackie Redpath.
“People are mixed up, very mixed … I think people are fed-up
… It’s very difficult to see a way back from where we are at the
moment, Jim,” Redpath said. “Sorry to be so depressing.”
Lyons nodded. “That’s probably a very realistic assessment,”
he said. “We’re doing what we can.”
He dropped in at the home of Margaret McKinney. Her
youngest son, Brian, mentally disabled, was murdered more than two
decades ago. Goaded by neighborhood boys, he’d used a toy pistol
to hold up a store. When he showed the stolen money to his
parents, they returned it to the store and apologized.
But the IRA group that policed the neighborhood decided to
discipline Brian. Hooded men showed up at the McKinney home one
night. They told Margaret they would only scare her son. Instead,
they apparently killed him. Two decades later, she finally found
out what happened after visiting the White House with an Irish
women’s group. She met Lyons there, and when he asked what had
happened, she told him about Brian.
Lyons told Clinton, then began pressuring Adams to do “the
right thing.” Last year, IRA leaders arranged for excavation of a
field across the border in the Republic of Ireland. Police
unearthed Brian’s body and brought it home for burial in Belfast.
McKinney told Lyons she feels much better now. A picture of
her with Clinton sits on the mantle with pictures of Brian. But
she still clings to the white tennis shoes found on his body –
“with the wee blue stripes up the sides,” she tearfully told Lyons
in her tidy sitting room.
Lyons hugged her.
And he handed her a packet of flower seeds. People in
Colorado know the pain of losing children, he said.
McKinney planned to plant the seeds the next day. She was
hoping one might sprout by Easter.