A novel from a congressman is always a novelty. It is not, as a group, literary. Peter King's "Terrible Beauty" is both more and less than that. It is not so much a novel as a tract. Nobody will read it for its style or its character development. It is King's impassioned tribute to the Irish Republican Army, and a love letter to the women of Northern Ireland, who spoke, organized--and killed--for the cause while their husbands were in jail. It will annoy the British and make Irish blood boil. It also helps us understand why once again the laborious peace process in Northern Ireland is hanging by a thread.
The arrival of King's novel coincided with a visit from a small, bleak delegation from South Armagh, whose members feel, as so many Protestants in the north of Ireland do, that only the IRA and its Sinn Fein spokesmen get a hearing in the United States.
"Families Acting for Innocent Relatives" is what the year-old group calls itself. The delegation members visited many Capitol Hill offices, including Peter King's, pleading for recognition of their woes and the losses their families have suffered. Their documentation is daunting: 378 murders, 1,255 bombings, 1,158 gun attacks--all, they charge, at the hands of Catholic terrorists.
Where were they while the rest of the North was beating a path to Bill Clinton's door? The group's secretary, young Brian McConnell, says it was "too dangerous" to speak up before.
They have a humble agenda: an audience with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a change in the release date for a killer-prisoner, a memorial for victims. Their brochure pictures a flag-draped coffin, just as King's book jacket does. They had a "nice" meeting with King, they said.
King, a Republican from Long Island, is an engaging politician. Even British ambassadors-- who have invited him to their embassy here and have borne his jibes--enjoy his company. They also found him helpful; he could always get through to Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader.
King was born in Queens, a hotbed of IRA support. His father, a New York cop, was once a member of the IRA. For King, Ireland's troubles could always be described in two words: the British. During the '70s and '80s, he decided to get involved, shuttling between Nassau County and Belfast. Soon, his presence was sought by both sides as an observer at several notorious trials at which "supergrasses"--paid informers--gave testimony that put many an Irishman in jail for life.
The heroine of his novel is Bernadette Hanlon, who King says is a "composite of all the women I met in those years, the women whose husbands are in jail and who do everything for the family and the cause." What tips Bernadette into violent activism is the murder of a 12-year-old girl by a British policeman, and the fate of a decent woman who witnessed the crime and tries to report it to the authorities. She is tortured by British police and made to retract her charges. King describes her brutal treatment in harrowing detail. It is graphic, and it reveals the implacable hatred that has poisoned life in Northern Ireland. King knows it is appalling and apt to rouse new passions, but he says he had no intention of hurting "the cause of peace."
The cause is currently imperiled by a dispute over "decommissioning," the laying down of arms in the over-gunned province called for in the Good Friday Agreement signed a year ago. David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists (the largest Protestant party), is adamant that he must have "a gesture" of progress so the new Northern Ireland assembly with Sinn Fein ministers can go forward. Trimble says he had a promise of action in a private letter from Blair, who has been exemplary in his conduct of the Irish initiative. Blair maintains he only pledged "a best endeavor."
Blair is telling the politicians that they must finally trust each other and "all jump together." He is telling the Irish people to demand peace.
King speculates that Catholic training has made that part of the population too accepting of bad outcomes, "you know this 'vale of tears' talk makes them passive."
All we keep learning is what we already know: In Northern Ireland, there is always no end of pain and no end in sight of passing it around.
CAPTION: Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and Rep. Peter King, (R-N.Y.) arrive at Capitol Hill in March 1998.