Can the Irish peace process survive the Peace Prize?

Paul Vallely on life after last week's award to Hume and Trimble

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SO THERE goes the Irish peace process. Just when everything seemed to be staggering on as smoothly as anything ever could in Northern Ireland, along comes the Nobel Peace Prize, like some awful harbinger of doom.

Well done, lads, the Norwegians of the Nobel committee have said to John Hume and David Trimble, two of the key architects of the province's Good Friday agreement, keep up the good work. What, like the previous recipients? Or so the residents of Ulster might be forgiven for expostulating. For the unpalatable fact is that the Nobel Peace Prize is seen in many quarters as the international statesman's equivalent of the curse of Hello! magazine - only this time it is more than marriages that are doomed.

In the Middle East the 1994 Nobel laureate and former Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, is dead, at the hand of his own side, and his fellow winner Yasser Arafat has watched peace slip through the Palestinians' disenchanted fingers. In South Africa, where the year before the prize went jointly to Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, the new political dispensation is coming under increasing pressure from a combination of economic strain - one of its flagship corporations, Anglo American, moved its headquarters from Johannesburg to London on Thursday - rising crime and dissatisfaction among blacks at the cautious realism of the rate of change.

Look further back and you find another assassinated laureate, the former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who got the prize in 1978 for an earlier Middle Eastern peace treaty. Then there was the venality into which the last Irish prize descended when the 1977 Peace People were wracked with bitter divisions over how to spend the prize money, with one of the winners departing rather unexpectedly to begin a new life amid the affluence of Florida. And, of course, tragedy descended into farce with the award in 1973 to Henry Kissinger for supposedly bringing peace to South Vietnam - but in fact prompting the North Vietnamese to invade the place two years later. No wonder David Trimble expressed the hope that the 1998 prize was not premature.

But am I just being churlish here? That depends upon what the point of the prize is supposed to be. When the Swedish inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, died in 1896 he left, by way of compensation, a huge amount of money to reward more positive human endeavour with prizes for medicine, science, literature and peace. There have been rows about who got them ever since, but the peace prize has proved the most contentious.

In part that comes from the breadth of its focus. Was the prize to be a recognition of personal bravery, like that of prophetic figures such as Desmond Tutu (1984) or Martin Luther King (1964)? Was it an endorsement of dogged vision, as with Lech Walesa in 1983? Or a counsel of perfection as with Mother Teresa in 1979? Is it a reprimand to the men of war, as with the 1996 award to the two campaigners against Indonesian repression in East Timor, Bishop Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, or with the perpetually harassed Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (1991) or the exiled Tibetan people's leader, the Dalai Lama (1989)? Or is the award of the prize simply a collective sigh of relief as when it was given to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 for helping to bring the Cold War to an end? And how are we to read those less memorable recipients in between the bigger names?

I allow myself this querulous train of thought, however, only because I am so optimistic about what is going on in Northern Ireland today. This year there was a record number of 139 nominations, including Pope John Paul II, Vaclav Havel and Kofi Annan. But the breadth of the achievement in Ireland is illustrated by the fact that plausible cases were also made for giving it to Bill Clinton for his decisive contribution, to Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern for theirs, to Senator George Mitchell, who chaired the multi-party talks on the agreement for two years, to Mo Mowlam for her imaginative facilitation, and to Gerry Adams and the loyalist ex-paramilitary David Ervine, who have perhaps made the longest journey into political compromise for peace.

Yet it is not merely the breadth of this endeavour which suggests to me that Northern Ireland may be sufficiently robust to resist the jinx of the peace award. Nor, even, was it simply the sight after the Omagh bomb of David Trimble at a Catholic funeral or Gerry Adams condemning a Republican outrage. All these are merely symptoms of a far more profound change which can be detected in the people of the island.

After 20 years of regularly visiting the north of Ireland I have begun to detect there a significant change in the warp and weft of daily discourse. It was there in the poignant radio-station phone-ins in the days after Omagh. The sullen silence or lip-service condemnations of outrages against the other side had given way to something more open. It did not just trigger memories of the callers' own rankling pain, some of it stretching back a full three decades. It also articulated the extent to which there is emotional assimilation of the new political agenda which rejects paradigms that automatically equate nationalism with a particular geographical unit and unionism with the symbols of a Britishness which has all but vanished on the mainland. That same intuition was evident yesterday in the new even-handedness in the tributes on the street and in the shopping malls to John Hume and David Trimble alike.

One of the most striking insights of this new politics has come from Northern Ireland's cross-religious Corrymeela Community. For years its peace and reconciliation workers have been bringing Catholics and Protestants together on neutral territory with the aim of allowing them to discover their common humanity. It was not enough, they have since realised, because it took no account of people's nearly infinite capacity for making the exception. A racist may have one or two black friends - to whom he somehow accords the status of honorary whites - without shifting his underlying racism; in the same way mere contact does not destroy the stereotypes of religious tribalism in Ireland. Prejudice, as the example of the Metropolitan Police so sadly testifies, resides in group dynamics even more than in the prejudices of individual bigots. Corrymeela has therefore shifted its emphasis and has developed a series of exercises for working within individual religious and tribal groups which are bearing exciting fruits among ex-paramilitaries, rioting youths and members of the local security forces.

There is much more to be done, of course. But across the north of Ireland the process is under way of moving beyond the mere toleration of difference - though that is a massive achievement - to embracing a diversity that is enriching and to be celebrated. If that is to continue, the work will be as much within communities as across them; in that, the work of thousands of individuals, of whom the odd couple Hume and Trimble are merely the exemplars, will be vital. If they succeed, perhaps the Nobel committee might award a prize to all of them. Or perhaps, by then, they will have prize enough.

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