3 Mar – Northern Ireland: A New Dawn? – Address given at Ecumenical Lenten Lecture Series Rathfarnham Parish, Dublin

“Northern Ireland: A New Dawn?”
Address by
Cardinal Seán Brady
Ecumenical Lenten Lecture Series
Rathfarnham Parish, Dublin
8.00 p.m. Thursday 3rd March, 2005

Archbishop Eames, Rev. Woods, Ladies and gentlemen,

When the late Father Liam Carey wrote to me some months ago, on behalf of the three parishes, to invite me to speak here tonight, I felt at once flattered, honoured and challenged. I was aware that Father Carey, in his earlier years, had worked here in Dublin in the area of Adult Education and Community Development. I suppose it was this great interest in authentic and inclusive development that led him to get involved in the Lenten Ecumenical Lectures Series, which he and Reverend Ted Woods were organising together.

In a letter to me on 30 November 2004 Father Carey promised to keep me informed of developments and arrangements concerning this programme. Well, the Lord had other plans for Father Carey. I am hoping that this evening he will keep me inspired during the developments and arrangements of this evening’s proceedings.

I am also happy to note that in these parishes: the Church of the Holy Spirit and the Church of the Annunciation, there are two former students of the Irish College, Rome: Father Eamon McNerney and Father Des Hayden and also that Father Joe Hanlon is Parish Priest.

The title of this evening’s talk which Archbishop Eames and I have been asked to address is: Northern Ireland – A New Dawn? Last evening when I mentioned the title to a friend he said: “A new ridge of low pressure or a trough of deep depression might be a more accurate description of the present situation”.
I am well aware that a lot of people are getting tired of the peace process in Northern Ireland. They are becoming rather cynical and are tempted to say, ‘what peace process’? and, in a sense one cannot blame them. There are good reasons for a certain amount of weariness and disillusionment and disgust and confusion about this whole process and yet the Church does not tire. It does not tire of preaching the Good News – the Good News of peace.

The Church proclaims the Good News that brings salvation. Of course that salvation is achieved definitively in the new life that awaits the righteous after death. But that salvation also permeates the present world in areas such as economy and labour; technology and communications; society and politics; the international community and relations among cultures and peoples.

The Church proclaims the Gospel that brings genuine freedom, not only internally to the person but also to temporal realities. As the Church proclaims that freedom, she is mindful of the solemn advice, given by Paul to Timothy when he said: “Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exalt, be unfailing in patience and in teaching”. Clearly Paul understood that the journey to peace and freedom, like discipleship itself, required unfailing patience and perseverance, both in season and out of season.

Another Pauline character who understood this need for patient perseverance in the search for peace was the great American pastor and non-violent civil rights leader, Martin Luther King. On the 28th August 1963 he made what is generally regarded as one of the most inspirational speeches of the twentieth century. In it Pastor King took up the biblical theme of the slow, often uncertain journey of God’s people from captivity to the land of freedom and promise. It is described for us in the book of Exodus. He addressed a rally of some 200,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington with the following words: ‘When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!”.

The crowds arose in prolonged applause and, as you know, this passionate cry for freedom became not only the legacy but also the final epitaph of Martin Luther King. Clearly this heroic Christian advocate of non-violent social and political change had touched on something very fundamental to the human spirit – the search for freedom.
In the years that followed, that search for freedom, that dream of new relationships between peoples of different nationalities, races and religious faith, took hold across the world. Thanks to television and radio, people quickly became caught up in the vision of new possibilities for the whole human family – the possibility of real equality, with respect for diversity; of real justice and solidarity, with a sense of responsibility for each other; of a new solidarity and global concern for others, particularly for the starving and the poor. It was also the time of the Second Vatican Council.
This was also a period of new impetus in Ecumenical and inter-faith relations, of the aggiornamento and rinnovamento of the Catholic Church which would spur on new journeys of dialogue, affection and respect between the communities of Christian faith, not least here in Ireland.

In Northern Ireland, this dream of new possibilities, of which Martin Luther King spoke, found expression in the Civil Rights Movement. That Movement arose from a new level of awareness of social, political and economic inequalities. What was to happen next, however, was to change all of our lives to this present day. While the search for civil and political rights in the US remained largely faithful to the non-violent methodology espoused by Martin Luther King, the journey in Northern Ireland was to take a very different direction. In a complex chain of action and reaction, which defies any simple moral analysis, tempting though that might be, Northern Ireland quickly descended into the dark malaise of violence and political atrophy, which we have come to know as The Troubles. What could be aptly described, in the context of tonight’s presentation, as the dark night of Northern Ireland’s soul. More importantly, and I worry that younger generations will forget this, it was a period of immense human suffering, misery, death and pain. It was a far cry from freedom, a far cry from justice, a far cry from the more dignified and prosperous life which those engaged in violence on all sides were in some sense claiming to protect or promote.
As we consider the question at the heart of this evening’s talk – Northern Ireland: a new dawn (question mark) – two aspects of this period continue to be of particular interest to me.

The first is the very narrow concept of freedom which dominated then and continues to frustrate the dawning of a new era in Northern Ireland. We have a tradition in Ireland of understanding our freedom as a ‘freedom from’, notably freedom from British rule or possibly for Protestants in the north, freedom from Catholic domination. By any standards this is a narrow and profoundly outdated notion of freedom. The biblical concept of freedom, captured in Martin Luther King’s programmatic address, is a much richer and deeper concept. It includes the notion of ‘freedom for’ – freedom for the other, freedom for responsibility, freedom for truth, freedom for service, freedom for the good of others as well as for oneself. It is a concept of freedom, which sees sin, selfishness, anger, revenge, disordered passions and appetites as forms of personal and collective slavery. We must be freed from all forms of slavery if we are to experience life to the full. Critically, though, freedom from fear is the most fundamental freedom of all.

Perfect love, the Scriptures tell us, casts out all fear. Those who wish to hold us back from loving others or acting freely within and beyond our own tradition will often use fear as their first weapon against our freedom.

This is a particularly poignant point in the light of recent events in the Short Strand and in other places. The courage and determination of the McCartney family to ensure justice for their brother, Robert, has been an outstanding example of how the power of love, the love of another person, the love of noble ideals such as justice, fairness and freedom, can rise up and render transparent and weak the efforts of others to bully, frighten and control whole communities for their own selfish or political ends. For my part I would like to express my wholehearted support to the calls from the McCartney family for anyone with information about the vicious and brutal murder of Robert McCartney to come forward to the police and to help to secure a conviction for his murder through the courts. It is not good enough; it is not consistent with the principle of freedom, for people to present this information in a way, which cannot be used to secure a conviction.

Surely it is time for Catholics in Northern Ireland to set aside their historic reservations about the Police, however well founded they may have been, and to assume their full civic responsibility for an agreed and representative system of law and order. A community which was prepared to make a deal which included accepting shared responsibility for devolved powers over policing in December, cannot credibly fail to support co-operation with policing on such a grave and criminal matter in March.

I am convinced that the existence and established reputation of the office of the Police Ombudsman alone should be enough to ensure the confidence of anyone who has information to fulfil their obligation before God to bring those responsible for the murder of Robert McCartney to justice. I appeal to them, for the sake of their conscience and in the name of freedom and justice, to do so and to do so urgently.

For I believe that it is not only dawning, but it is becoming crystal clear that to protect the common good, it is up to the lawful, public authority to exercise the right and the duty to inflict punishments according to the Criminal Code. This right belongs to the lawful public authority alone, not to some self-appointed private illegal groups who specialize in the destruction of evidence of a case rather than its production in a court of law in order to secure a conviction. The power to inflict punishment is entrusted to the Court. That Court of law is not only independent of party political influence, it is also independent of the Legislature and the Executive. This applies right across the board in any authentic democracy.

The second aspect of the early troubles which attracts my particular interest this evening is the role of the four main Churches at this time – the Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, Methodist and Catholic Churches. There was a time at the beginning of the troubles when political discussion was often deadlocked, and many people would not even speak to one another. It was then that many courageous men and women at a local level, out of Christian conviction, and often led by their clergy, established points of contact, places of encounter and dialogue amidst the bitterness and division. At a leadership level, the leaders of the four main Churches began the Ballymascanlon Talks. It was a hugely significant breakthrough at the time of the early seventies. Visually, they provided a powerful symbol of the possibility of mutual respect and dialogue in the midst of an increasingly divided and violent society. It is my own conviction that, in addition to the calming and restraining influence of the main Churches on the dangerous dynamics of that time, the language and concepts which emerged from the dialogue between the main Churches at a local and leadership level, became in large part, the language and inspiration of what has become known as the Peace Process. As one Unionist politician commented recently:

‘On balance, churches have been a stabilising influence. Although the “two communities” are now highly segregated, on the whole there is probably more civility between them than there would have been without the presence of the church. The churches have been one of the factors that have prevented Northern Ireland from following the path of Kosovo or Bosnia.’

The words reconciliation, forgiveness, truth, integrity, peace, conversion, repentance, mutual respect, interdependence, equality, parity of esteem, all of these terms found their place in the specifically religious vocabulary of the people of Northern Ireland. Long before others ever began to use these words here they were used by those who acted out of a heroic conviction of faith and who engaged with one another in the patient search for peace and understanding.

I mention this not simply to give credit to the Churches, though I do feel their role has often been overlooked. I do so rather to point out that the dream of peace, as Martin Luther King described it, is something that comes from, and belongs to, the people themselves, collectively. Indeed, the failure to maintain a broader social base and to invest more widely in forms of social and bridging capital other than party politics has been partly responsible, in my view, for the wearying start-stop nature of the peace process in Northern Ireland. As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church points out, ‘the goal which believers must put before themselves is that of establishing community relationships among people. It is not one of pursuing selfish or strategic interests. ‘The Christian vision of political society places paramount importance on the value of community, both as a model for organising life in society and as a style of everyday living.’ The Compendium also goes on to say that:

An authentic democracy is the result of a convinced acceptance of the values that inspire democratic procedures. Those values are the dignity of every human person, the respect of human rights, commitment to the common good as the purpose and guiding criterion for political life.

That final phrase commitment to the common good is critical in our current context. It is not personal or party mandates which provide the first point of reference for authentic democracy, but the orientation of that mandate toward the common good of society as a whole. This is consistent with the biblical view that peace is a vision, a dream, a hope which all of the people possess collectively. When individuals vote overwhelmingly in favour of a shared vision of peace, it implies that they are willing to negotiate on some of their deepest held aspirations, for the sake of the greater good of all. Those who receive the mandate to strive for that peace from within a particular political party or tradition, not only receive the right to represent and negotiate for the aspirations of their own voters. They also receive a solemn responsibility to deliver that peace according to the values and aspirations which society as a whole has collectively endorsed.

In my view, this is the moral implication of the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement. That referendum was an act of self-determination, overwhelmingly endorsed by the people of Ireland on both sides of the border. It was a mandate for an agreed, collective and inclusive vision of partnership and peace, for a new beginning to democracy based on equality and the use of purely peaceful and morally upright means.

The unfolding of that Agreement has, at times, been frustrated and frustrating. At different points different factors were to blame. The most pervasive and consistent factor was, of course, the failure to build confidence and trust. This has led to many false dawns and disappointing days.

As I said at the beginning, it has also led to a growing weariness and disillusionment about the very prospect of peace itself. But, as the history of salvation constantly reminds us, it is sometimes in the midst of weariness and confusion that new and more realistic possibilities emerge that the light of a new and more authentic dawn breaks through.

For my part, I would hope that out of all of this soul-searching and confusion, there would emerge a clearer idea of what is the purpose of political activity. My hope is that it will begin to dawn on all of us that the purpose of political life is not the political party but the human person and the common good.

I would hope that it may begin to dawn on people also that you can only build genuine peace on truth, not on lies, falsehood and deceit. You may ask to whom am I referring? I am talking about anyone who tells lies, any person or group who deliberately conceals their true intent, activity or corporate personality, while at the same time sues for peace. You can’t build trust between people who lie to each other.
I would also hope that people are becoming more aware of the danger of handing over their hard won freedom of thought, action and conscience to the bullying mob for the sake of some outdated and oppressive sense of community loyalty. This is not freedom but a new and brutal form of oppression. And once the people stop being afraid, once they find the courage to stand-up and say enough is enough, it is amazing how quickly things can change.

What is clear is that in the midst of the confusion and disillusionment of the current crisis, we have reached a fork in the road, a defining moment on the journey towards a lasting peace. And like any defining moment in the scriptures, it is a moment of opportunity as well as challenge. The opportunity is to build the peace process and the principles of the Good Friday Agreement on a more certain and transparent moral basis. A situation where all paramilitary groups have given up their weapons, their threats and their subversive economies and finally honoured the will of the people for a normalised society and a normal opportunity for life and for living, and where the rest, as they say, will be politics.

What is certainly becoming clearer every day is that a fundamental shift is taking place in the peace process. The language of constructive ambiguity and moral murk has had its day. People want the real thing. They want transparency and accountability. They want prosperity and freedom. They want local power and effective law and order. They want actions not words.

It is only when this begins to happen, when the people themselves begin to take responsibility again for the pursuit of peace, for exposing the contradictions within their own community, as well as in others, that the new dawn for Northern Ireland will really begin to emerge. I believe that the current impasse, if handled properly, if faced up to with courage, integrity and a concern for the common good, could turn out to be that moment of darkness before the dawn. And when it comes, those who in the name of Jesus have constantly rejected violence and sought the good of others as well as themselves, will be able to join together in singing, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we’re free at last!’

The Archdiocese of Armagh provides external links as convenience to our users. The appearance of external links does not constitute endorsement by the Archdiocese of Armagh of the information contained therein.