December 14 CC Jim Lyons

“Peace Meets the Street: On the Ground In Northern Ireland, 1993-2001”. Rodger Hara Interviews Author Jim Lyons

On a cold and snowy Veteran’s Day in Jim Lyons’ 30th floor office at the law firm of Lewis Roca Rothgerber LLP overlooking downtown Denver, the Celtic Connection had an informal chat with him about his new book, “Peace Meets the Street: On the Ground In Northern Ireland, 1993-2001”. In that book, Jim provides brief, simple and highly accessible descriptions of the historical problems that led to “The Troubles” and the contemporary political context for why those problems continued until the Good Friday Agreement. He very modestly limits the description of the part he played as the (unpaid) U.S. Observer to the International Fund for Ireland and Special Advisor (also unpaid) to President Clinton for economic development and the peace initiative in Northern Ireland and the Republic. Rather, in the slim 105 page volume, he describes the people of Northern Ireland who participated in the peace process, the risks they took and the courage they displayed. His family tree includes a mother of Protestant stock from the North and a father with Catholic roots from the West, making him an ideal choice for those roles as well as that of Honorary Consul for Ireland in Denver. His early experience as an attorney in his native Chicago working with banks gave him the tools to help develop a micro-lending program for businesses in Ireland. He sent former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton a copy of the book and in response she sent him a letter in which she said “I appreciate your thoughtfulness and good cheer, and know that Bill joins me in expressing our gratitude to you for your important and transformative work in Northern Ireland.” The book is available at Amazon.com. All profits will be donated to the Victims Fund of Omagh in honor of the 29 people killed in the Real IRA bombing of August 1998.

Celtic Connection: In your book, you mention that your father’s family is from Donegal – where is your mother from?
Lyons: Fermanagh and Tyrone as near as we can tell. Originally from Scotland. They probably came over at the tail end of the Ulster plantation. Her father was a Glassman and her mother was a McGuiness and they could be from anywhere.

CC: How long did it take you to write the book?
Lyons: Years. Because I kept picking it up and putting it down. Finally, last spring and last summer I felt like it was time to sit down and get it done.

CC: Did you write it from notes or a journal?
Lyons: I had some notes but didn’t keep a journal because in the thick of the action you couldn’t keep a journal and do the job, but I had the reports that were submitted quarterly to the IFI (International Fund for Ireland) to work from, I had copies of my own correspondence with the White House – most of which had to go to the Clinton Library – so I had to go down there to read copies of my own memos. And I had a pretty good recollection of the people who are in the book that I worked with and some of whom I still see. The better part of it was memory and help from an international student from CU, Melissa Field, who traveled to Northern Ireland and did research for me.

CC: Why did you decide to write the book?
Lyons: I decided that there were people involved in the peace process who were unsung heroes. They were known in their communities and other communities. I didn’t think that people in the United States who followed Northern Ireland had any sense of who these people were or the extraordinary contributions they made. Even before we got there in the early 90’s, they had been trying to bring some degree of stability and safety, if you will, if not peace within their relative communities, at the height of the Troubles. These people were at risk, their families were at risk and yet they persevered. I thought they were heroic stories that I had been privileged to witness firsthand and I wanted to tell them.

CC: In the book, there is much about them but relatively little about what you did.
Lyons: That was deliberate. My function in the first instance was to be the U.S. Observer which I was for all the years and my sole function for the first few years. That meant I had the responsibility for seeing that our contribution, which was $20 to $25 million dollars per year, was being well spent. So my initial role was more of an oversight role that, given my personality, ultimately became more of an active role. The treaty that created the fund required an annual report to Congress on how the money was being spent and for what, so my legal responsibility was to make sure that the report was well documented and supportable so the President could report to Congress. In the second part of my role there, the second four years, after I took over for Senator Mitchell, then my role became broader, more of an activist role. But that didn’t change the fundamental aspect of the story. If you wanted to do something in West Belfast, you clearly had to involve Geraldine (McAteer) from the Nationalist/Catholic community and you had to involve Jackie (Redpath – founder of the Greater Shankill Partnership) and May Blood and Des McCarthy. The story is still theirs. I said in some exasperation in a public setting at one point that the policy of the United States was not for a united Ireland but an “agreed” Ireland. I got a call from the White House the next day saying that they read it in the overnight clips and asked if I’d really said that. I said I did and they said we like it and we think we’ll take credit for it. I said help yourself, help yourself.

But I didn’t ever really think it was about me; I always thought it was about what we can do to help these people and their country. They know more than we ever will about what is needed to move the process forward and our job was to help them do that.

CC: At one point you describe having to become a State Department employee. Did you receive any compensation for your work?
Lyons: No. My expenses were covered and Senator Mitchell wasn’t compensated and I didn’t see any reason for me to be paid. Given the State Department system, they couldn’t figure out a way or find a form so that I could be an employee and not be paid. I came up with a solution that I offered to a bright young lawyer there – I told them that I would send them a letter waiving any payment and they thought that would work.

CC: Did you ever feel unsafe at any time while you were in the North?
Lyons: Yes – a couple of times. It’s like anywhere else – there are parts of Denver or any city where you shouldn’t go and you wouldn’t feel safe. I never felt unsafe in the countryside because I was with people who knew me or who I had come to know and whose advice I would follow about where to go and not to go. I recall that the first time I flew into Belfast I had an experience about other’s perception of danger. I usually sleep on the plane so I got into London at 8, caught a flight to Belfast and was there at 10. I checked into the Europa hotel, changed and took a walk around East Belfast, crossed over into West Belfast – and I think I look pretty Irish – so didn’t think about it. I got back to the hotel and found half a dozen calls from the Embassy asking me why I didn’t check in with them and where I went. I told them and they said that I couldn’t be wandering around like that and if I wanted to do that they would assign security to me. I said that if you assign security to me, I can’t do my job. Every time I show up somewhere it’s going to be a production. So they understood that and there were a couple of times where I was in parts of Belfast where I felt a little unsafe, but I grew up in Chicago so I’m used to big cities.

CC: You were here in 1987 when the Eniskillen bombing happened. How aware were you then of the Troubles?
Lyons: LIke most Irish-Americans I knew what was going on and that there was need for finding common ground. I’d been to Ireland in 1985 or 1986 before the bombing and now the Clinton Peace Center has been built on the site of the bombing and it’s doing quite well.

CC: Knowing what you know now, are things that you would have done differently or could have done differently?
Lyons: At the beginning, I and some others felt that this was a solvable problem and that we, unlike in the Middle East, didn’t have to ask anybody to give up any land or settlements. As time went on, we began to realize that this wasn’t a religious dispute, it was a tribal dispute and once you put it into that context a lot of things come more sharply into focus. Because then you can look past religions at what are the societal and cultural characteristics of the tribes you’re trying to deal with. In this case, they’re both Christians, worship the same God, speak the same language and as a Catholic Irish-American, it took a lot of time and lot of work for me to understand the Orange traditions and practices. Once, while working on the ASPIRE program (CC note: the micro-finance program whose original name was the Entrepreneurial Growth Trust or EGT – which sounds like eejit – hence the name change), I was in Belfast for a meeting on Ash Wednesday and went to a little Catholic church near where the meeting was being held so I went to Mass, had ashes applied then went to the meeting. After the meeting, two bankers from the Unionist community pulled me aside as we were leaving and said “We didn’t know you were Catholic.” My first thought was to say that Catholics aren’t the only ones who get ashes – Episcopalians do too. Then my second thought was that maybe they were saying that even though you’re a Catholic, we know we can trust you and I didn’t go there. Finally, I just said, “I’m an American” and let it go at that and it never came up again. And in thinking about it, at the beginning, all of us could have worked harder with the Unionist community. We could have worked harder with people like Ian Paisley who called our money blood money. We made sure that our money only went into projects that had cross-community involvement and contributed to both Nationalists and Unionists.

CC: I see a bust of President Kennedy on your bookshelf. Reading your book made think of his book, “Profiles In Courage”.
Lyons: Thank you. That’s a flattering comparison. I know that he wrote every word of his book just as I wrote mine no matter what people say about his ghost writers. Just as he did, I wanted to put the focus not on me but on these people who made such an extraordinary difference that you’d never have heard of but for my book.

CC: What’s your favorite memory of your time there?
Lyons: It was when President Clinton flew into Belfast on Air Force One. As a member of the diplomatic delegation, I was supposed to go down the stairs at the front in advance of his departure from the plane. Instead, I went down the back stairs with the press because I wanted to be there and see the reaction of the people on the tarmac. For an American, seeing Air Force One is a staggering sight, but just imagine it on this tiny little place in the northwestern edge of Europe that’s been in turmoil for centuries with the President of the United States bearing a promise of peace and a better tomorrow – it was just absolutely astounding to me. I had no idea the impact the sight of the man and his wife would have on the people gathered there.

CC: How involved was he in the peace process?
Lyons: He was intimately involved. He read every memo that was presented to him because it was very important to him. I used to get memos that went up through channels come back with notes in his handwriting on them saying “What about this and what about that”. I don’t know if people there are aware of how deeply involved he was. I hope they are.

CC: What do you see for the future?
Lyons: They have the tools in place. The Good Friday Agreement has been modified by the St. Andrew’s Agreement that puts a political structure in place that’s proven and works. The people of Northern Ireland have to give it faith and that’s always a hard thing to do. I don’t think that whether the North remains a province of the U.K. or becomes independent, which works less well for the North than it does for Scotland – or unites with the Republic, and by the way, the overwhelming sentiment is still against unification – sooner or later, the economic and societal links between the two will strengthen and not be the barriers they used to be. It might take a generation or two. I hope it’s sooner. These are smart people and these are good people on both sides and as long as they give themselves the opportunity to appreciate the values held by each side, I think they’re going to be fine.

CC: Thank you very much for your time.

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