CAMBRIDGE — In a poignant scene in James Demo’s documentary “The Peacemaker,” Padraig O’Malley , 75 , talks about why he has spent over 40 years tirelessly working to resolve conflicts in world hot spots from Northern Ireland to Bosnia to Iraq. “If I stop working,” he says, “I’ll suffer from withdrawal symptoms.”
Born in Dublin, and a Cambridge resident since 1968, O’Malley has maintained this kind of work ethic his whole life. At 17 he earned a Fulbright scholarship that took him to the United States, where he studied at Yale, Tufts, and Harvard. He organized the first of many peace initiatives in 1975, when he managed to bring the contending parties in the bloody Northern Ireland “Troubles” to a conference at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He has written several books, the latest being “The Two-State Delusion: Israel and Palestine — A Tale of Two Narratives” (2015). He is now the Joseph Moakley Distinguished Professor of Peace and Reconciliation at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at UMass Boston.
O’Malley accomplished all this despite being an alcoholic from the age of 23. For a long time the drinking actually helped him, and he relied on it to lubricate his social and diplomatic skills in cajoling intransigent enemies to talk to each other. However, by 2002, O’Malley realized that he had to quit. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and he replaced his addiction to alcohol with his addiction to work.
But he also applied the program’s strategy, in which recovering addicts help fellow addicts, to his peacemaking efforts. Recognizing conflict as a kind of addiction, he brought those who have recovered from their own conflicts together with those whose conflicts are unresolved. In 1997, he got leaders of the contending sides in Northern Ireland to meet with Nelson Mandela in South Africa. The meetings went well. In part because of them, the following year those parties signed the Good Friday Agreement, bringing a fragile cease-fire to the sectarian violence that had plagued Northern Ireland for decades.
O’Malley’s use of the AA strategy has not only helped with peace talks, it has also inspired other recovering alcoholics. “No matter where the film is shown, people come up afterwards and tell me they have had 10 years or 20 years of sobriety, or that their son just went into the program,” says O’Malley with a soft Irish brogue. He is sitting at a table at the Plough and Stars, the bar that he owns, and which ironically provides much of the funding for his projects. “We’ve shown it all around the world, in Asia, South America, Europe, Canada. I guess people everywhere connect with it on that level.”
Now O’Malley faces another challenge, both to his own health and to his mission to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable.
“I’ve been diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s,” he says. “You can write about it. I want people to understand it. We all have an image of what it is, and none of the images are good. But that’s a journey I’m just beginning. For the next two, maybe three years I’ll be able to conduct the kind of life I am now. But changes will come. Meanwhile I’ve become an advocate on behalf of the disease and will talk about it publicly and dissuade people from thinking of it as just a death sentence. Though it is a death sentence.”
O’Malley’s condition is hinted at in the documentary, which shows him undergoing memory tests and discussing the results of a brain scan with a doctor. “People throw the word genius around a lot, but Padraig is a true genius,” says Demo as he discusses the film and O’Malley at a Coolidge Corner teahouse. “He has probably the most impressive mind of anyone I’ve ever met. That allows him to operate with significant deficits. Padraig at 80 percent capacity traipses around the world and is still formidable. He is still able to speak extemporaneously on any subject. But he is experiencing issues with his memory. You see it in the film.”
Has O’Malley’s disease diminished his dedication to his mission and his ability to fulfill it?
“I was in five countries in the last 10 days,” he says. “Time zones ranging from two hours in one direction to three hours in the other. At the moment I’m fine. The parts of my memory that I rarely use or that are no use to me — those things I forget. The things that are very important to me, those things I keep. It obviously makes research more difficult. I take more copious notes. I can still absorb huge amounts of information and write about it, but then when I look at it a month later I say, my, that was really good! I surprise myself.”
Recently O’Malley has been working on a project to help Muslim youth in Europe.
“After the bombings in Paris [in 2015] the attitudes towards Muslims became horrendous,” O’Malley says. “They were looked at as would-be terrorists. I thought someone should develop a counter-narrative. What I was able to do was to bring 48 young Muslims from 12 countries together with 22 community workers. I asked them to write a charter of rights for young Muslims. And they did it. They got to know each other and enumerated 19 rights. And now I’m developing programs to implement those rights.”
Though rarely optimistic, O’Malley finds such youthful activism inspirational. “Once they [the young Muslims] began to believe that they could actually write something themselves, and then did it, it was a monumental change in their dispositions and their belief in themselves and what they could do,” he says. “Like those kids from Stoneman Douglas High School, in Florida, who rose up to demonstrate for gun-law reform after the shooting. They never knew that they could do what they did. A beautiful power comes out of nowhere from young people that amazes us.”
He is less impressed by the achievements of the adults in the room, however. He was shocked and dismayed by the election of Donald Trump. “It’s almost a cliché to repeat it, but things are becoming more and more like the 1930s and the rise of fascism. The slow undermining of the institutions, of the truth, is amazing.”
For O’Malley, even the seeming success of the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement seems problematic.
“Northern Ireland is one of the most traumatized societies in the world,” he says. “It has the highest rate of post-traumatic stress disorder. It even tops Iraq. More people have been killed by suicide in 20 years of peace than in 30 years of war.
“When the agreement was made 20 years ago, it was kind of cobbled together. There was a very real fear on both sides that if this failed there would be a return to full-scale violence. That’s not going to happen now. Sporadic violence, maybe, but no full-scale violence. So there is no incentive for the two parties to make a more substantial agreement. The stakes are too low. Meaningful reconciliation between the communities in Ireland is still generations away.”
Nonetheless, O’Malley will be on a plane to Belfast to join the 20th anniversary celebrations of the agreement, on April 10. Then he’ll be off to South Africa to pay a call on the new president, Cyril Ramaphosa. When you ask him where he feels most at home, he says, “An airport.”
“He is someone who always has to be out there,” says Demo. “He’s very uncomfortable when he’s home. He’s told me this on countless occasions. It doesn’t really matter the state of his health or his age, he’s going to be out there.”
A devout Catholic who long ago lost his faith, O’Malley seems determined to do the Lord’s work even though he doesn’t believe in him. Does he take to heart Christ’s Beatitude in Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, because they will be called children of God”?
“No,” he says. “I’m pretty pragmatic about these things.”
“The Peacemaker” screens on Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard St., Brookline . Demo and O’Malley will participate in a Q&A after the screening.
Interviews were condensed and edited. Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com