First Word: The Way Forward

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
June / July 2005

There is a sign on the wall at Gleason’s, Brooklyn’s storied boxing gym, posting an invitation from the poet Virgil: “Now whoever has courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forth, lace up his gloves, and put up his hands.”

John Duddy, a young boxer from Derry, was in Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, far from his hometown in Northern Ireland, when Irish America writer Marilyn Cole Lownes interviewed him back in March. He’s young, affable, handsome and a great boxer. He won his fight against Leonard Pierre on March 21, in a first-round knockout. The 25-year-old rising star now moves up to 9-0, with a shot at making it in the big leagues. In short, Duddy’s future looks bright.

In researching photos for Marilyn’s piece, I found an old black-and-white of John Duddy on the web. He looks about 14, an amateur boxer striking a pose. But almost instantly, though there is a great resemblance, I grasp that it can’t be the same John Duddy. The photo is old, for one thing, and when I look closely I see that it’s identified as belonging to the Bloody Sunday website — a site commemorating the 13 who were shot and killed on that January day in 1972 when the British Army fired on a peaceful civil rights march in Derry (one more person later died of wounds).

I realize with a pang that this John “Jackie” Duddy was one of those killed. He was just 17. He would never meet the nephew who would carry his name into the ring. Never watch him fight, or listen to his dream of being a world champion.

The Derry of Jackie Duddy’s youth was a very different place from what it is today. Throughout history, the Unionist minority within the city, gerrymandered votes (which were tied to property ownership) to the detriment of the Catholics living outside the walls, in an area known as the Bogside.

The Catholic and nationalist community was rife with unemployment and poor housing. The ’60s brought change as it did all over the world. The community began to organize and civil rights marches became part of a campaign to institute “One Man One Vote,” and address the issues of housing and employment.

The British response to the march on Bloody Sunday dashed the hopes for a political solution. It brought massive enrollment in the IRA by young men and women in Derry and across the North who saw no other way forward.

Bloody Sunday brought years of strife, internment without trial, diplock courts, hunger strikes, harassment by the security forces, and unimaginable pain inflicted on all the people of Northern Ireland. It brought the British Army, some 50,000, at times. (Even today there are more British Army in Northern Ireland than there are in Iraq, a point made by Martin McGuinness on a recent visit to New York).

Yet, despite all that, the tide began to turn again in 1994 when, persuaded by Sinn Féin with the backing of Irish-Americans, especially President Clinton, the IRA called a ceasefire. And, under the watchful eye of the former Senator from Maine, George Mitchell, all-party talks began and culminated in the Good Friday Agreement which was signed in April, 1998.

It takes great courage to lay down arms and embrace a political way forward, and this is what the Catholic and nationalist community has done. Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams has now asked the republicans to do the same.

“Let our revenge be the laughter of our children,” Adams said, quoting Bobby Sands, in remarks to the Transit Workers Union in New York recently. Sands was elected to the British parliament as he lay dying on hunger strike in Long Kesh prison in 1981.

As we go to press, the North readies itself for elections on May 5, the day Bobby Sands died.

The Irish and British governments must honor the outcome of this election, and see to it that the Good Friday Agreement is fully implemented, that the Northern Ireland Assembly is reinstated, and that there is full powersharing between all the parties in Northern Ireland.

As President Bush (talking about the Iraq elections) said, “If people are given a right to express themselves in a ballot in the ballot box, in the public square, and through a free and open press, it’ll lead to peace.” ♦

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