The Northern Ireland Bureau, the voice of Northern Ireland in Washington, D.C., will host a dinner today (April 30) to honor members of the Presbyterian Committee on Northern Ireland (PCNI) for their 20 years of work to aid the peace process in the once troubled British province.
“It’s a nice tribute from them that they appreciate what we’ve done,” says The Rev. Jim Macdonnell, a retired Presbyterian minister and PCNI president.
Catherine Bell, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Education in Northern Ireland, and Norman Houston, the Executive Director of the Northern Ireland Bureau, will speak at the event. Sixteen former board members from the PCNI from across the United States will attend.
The PCNI was started in the late 1980s out of concern for the extreme violence in Northern Ireland resulting from a violent ongoing fight between paramilitary groups centered around Protestant loyalists and Roman Catholic nationalists ― a 30 year struggle known as “The Troubles.”
Loyalists support Northern Ireland’s status as a province of Great Britain. Nationalists seek independence. Protestants ― predominantly Presbyterians ― are the vast majority in Northern Ireland.
“When I first went there in 1990 Belfast (the capital) was full of burned out cars from car bombs in the streets. You couldn’t park a car downtown because a car that was parked could be a bomb. People wouldn’t shop in the market because it was too dangerous,” Macdonnell says.
“There was hardly a family in Northern Ireland that didn’t lose someone to violence,” he continues. Of particular concern to the founders of the PCNI was the unintended aid for these groups coming from America. “Much of the violence in Northern Ireland was being paid for by overzealous Roman Catholics and Presbyterians in this country who thought they were being helpful.”
The founders of the PCNI wanted to find a way to turn this misdirected help into a real effort to work toward peace in Northern Ireland.
“We had two goals,” Macdonnell explains. “One, to work with Irish leaders, not to tell them what to do but to have them tell us what we could do to be helpful. Two, to respond to the PC(USA) and tell them what we were learning and what was going on because there was a lot of fiction and wild reports going on.”
The PCNI worked on both sides of the Atlantic over the years to realize these goals. Every two years in concert with the Northern Ireland Institute, groups that included people from both the Presbyterian and Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. visited Northern Ireland to meet with Catholic and Protestant leaders there and learn about the work being done to make peace.
The PCNI set up a program to award one-year scholarships to outstanding Irish business students to bring them to Presbyterian, Methodist and Roman Catholic institutions of higher learning in America. The hope was to help battle high unemployment in Ireland by developing strong future leaders for the Irish business community. In return, the students spoke extensively about conditions in Northern Ireland while in the U.S.
“We trained a couple thousand kids by doing that,” says Macdonnell.
PCNI Board members also built strong relationships with religious, political, and business leaders in Northern Ireland, people who were most in a position to affect change.
“We set up a real working relationship and got to know the leaders of the Presbyterian and Catholic churches, and business leaders,” Macdonnell says. “That was priceless, to really know movers and shakers.”
When President Clinton travelled to Dublin ― the capital of the independent and majority Catholic Republic of Ireland ― and Belfast in 1995 to endorse the peace process, two people from the PCNI were invited to go along with him in recognition of the group’s efforts to help in the peace process.
“That was some good recognition of what we were doing there,” says Macdonnell.
In the late 1990s, as the Irish people grew sick of the ongoing conflict, public sentiment grew toward a peaceful resolution. Five years ago, with the PCNI helping, self-rule came to Northern Ireland under a combined government made up of both Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders.
“Now it’s become very peaceful. It’s a beautiful place that most Americans have never been because they were too afraid to go there,” says Macdonnell.
“The economy is vastly improving. If you look at Belfast today, 20 years later, the business atmosphere is so good there are skyscrapers going up all over Belfast. For the first time things are looking up. The barbed wire fences are gone between the communities.”
With peaceful times coming to Northern Ireland, the PCNI had to reevaluate the work it was doing, and the decision was made to wind down operations in 2011 and end the ministry.
“We reached our goals of peace ― it’s time for us to back out and let the Irish do the work themselves,” Macdonnell concludes.
As a last act, the PCNI cleared out the final $100,000 remaining in its treasury and divided the money up as gifts to eight projects working toward the future of Northern Ireland in the fields of education, youth, and restoration.
Toni Montgomery is a free-lance journalist and frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service in Statesville, N.C., where she also serves as church secretary for First Presbyterian Church of Statesville.