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'Angel' to Touch on Northern Ireland Troubles

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Tuesday, February 8, 2000; 12:46 PM

Northern Ireland native Roma Downey, who stars as the heavenly Monica on "Touched By An Angel," will wing over to Capitol Hill tomorrow night for a special screening of an upcoming episode of the top-rated CBS drama. The 38-year-old actress told us yesterday that the episode is dear to her because it focuses on the politically charged struggle for lasting peace in her homeland.

"We've taken on lots of social issues, such as slavery in Sudan, but as an angel with an Irish accent, I felt it was time to do this one," Downey said from her home in Salt Lake City, where the series is filmed. "It is my hope that when this episode airs, that we have the potential for 20 million people to be educated about Northern Ireland and that they can send their thoughts of peace back home."

The episode, to air Sunday night, tells about a group of Northern Ireland teenagers, both Catholic and Protestant, whom Monica brings to the U.S. for a shared summer holiday. "They bring with them their suspicion and lack of trust for each other," Downey explained. "There's a Romeo-Juliet kind of romance that blossoms between a Catholic girl and a Protestant boy, but it has a slightly happier ending."

Downey said the episode was inspired by Project Children, a 25-year-old organization that brings Northern Ireland youth over for summer bonding sessions. Downey has been a spokeswoman for group for the last few years and lent her expertise as a script consultant for the "Angel" episode. She's also headlining a Project Children fundraiser at the Kennedy Center tonight.

Downey grew up in Derry, Northern Ireland, the youngest of six children. "My experience in Derry was that of being quite segregated. I grew up Roman Catholic. I went to Catholic schools, and we lived in the Catholic areas of the city," Downey told us. "I was in my middle-teens before I knowingly was in the company of Protestant young people." Her childhood experiences have had a lasting impact. "I was so young when the tensions began that that was my reality," she said. "Still to this day, I jump dramatically when a door slams, thinking it's an explosion or gunfire."

She hopes the current squabbles over disarmament in Northern Ireland will be resolved and soon. "I think like everyone else, I'm holding my breath," Downey said. "The peace has to hold. The alternative is too awful."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company