Jackson: Give peace a chance

11/11/2004 - 19:12:48

Unionists and republicans must not allow a once in a lifetime opportunity to strike a Northern Ireland peace deal slip away, the Reverend Jesse Jackson said tonight.

The veteran US civil rights campaigner pleaded with the rival political parties to reach a settlement that would restore devolution as he attended a special awards ceremony in Belfast.

The fierce critic of racism also issued a stark warning that Northern Ireland’s economic growth could be wrecked by spiralling attacks on ethnic groups.

But with peace credentials stretching back to the 1960s, he used advice from his mentor Martin Luther King Jr to inspire Sinn Féin and Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists to broker a settlement.

The Rev Jackson said: “Leaders must have the courage to seek a leap of faith.

“Peace is risky, but war is riskier and a longer option. So give peace a chance and let the beauty of Northern Ireland shine for the world to see.

“These moments come only once in a while, so I urge the parties to seize the moment and set forth a new day for Northern Ireland.”

The 63-year-old from South Carolina, who has campaigned against apartheid in South Africa, and for an accommodation between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, made his appeal at the Aisling awards recognising community workers in Belfast.

With the IRA believed to be close to an unprecedented disarmament move, the Irish and British governments have stepped up attempts to restore Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration.

Unionists who walked out of the Stormont Assembly two years ago over an alleged intelligence gathering operation run by the Provisionals are refusing to sit in a cabinet with Sinn Féin until paramilitary weapons are scrapped.

But Dublin and London must also wrestle with a bid by Mr Paisley’s DUP to make big changes to the Good Friday Agreement, including an attempt to have ministers held to account by their colleagues and the 108-member parliament.

As the tortuous process continues, the Rev Jackson had earlier called on the political leaders to draw inspiration from Yasser Arafat’s struggle.

He insisted a settlement in Ulster would be easier than either Arafat’s challenge or Nelson Mandela’s battle against apartheid.

“If the PLO can be recognised as a state in making then surely Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists can make that same leap,” he said.

“Frankly, they don’t have as far to go as the Palestinians had to go or South Africa had to go.”

As a founder of the Rainbow Coalition in Washington DC which campaigns for social justice and against racism, his presence at the awards was a timely boost.

Nurses from the Filipino community, which has come under attack in north Belfast from far right thugs, were added to the Aisling roll of honour.

The Rev Jackson had spoken of his horror at the tightening grip of racism on the city and warned of the consequences.

“I have read about it with some dismay,” he said. “Ireland right now is on the threshold of real economic investment and growth, but racist violence is a deterrent to growth.

“This is a deterrent to investment and if Ireland wants the benefits of investment, it must accept the opportunity of immigration.

“It must see immigration as an asset and not a threat.”

Asian families living in north Belfast had their homes smeared with sickening slogans earlier this week as far-right groups intensified their campaign.

Tiny knots of Pakistanis, Vietnamese, Ugandans and Portuguese who have set up home in Northern Ireland have also faced intimidation by the racists, with some cases also linked to Loyalist paramilitaries.

Three Latvian men were attacked in Lurgan, Co Armagh, this week, one being stabbed in the arm.

Mr Jackson denounced the thugs responsible for divisive racist attacks, stressing: “Racism theologically is a sin before God.

“We must see that racism hinders growth and limits the human spirit.”

In an attempt to eradicate the problem, he called for more education.

“In our schools and in our churches, we must not only condemn it but teach against it so that people can overcome their fear.”

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