This time last year there was great pessimism among many people about the prospects for peace. A series of sectarian murders had begun which was to continue all through January and February. It was difficult to be optimistic. Yet people continued to hope for peace and to work for peace and to pray for peace. On Good Friday, April 10, in Belfast their hope was fulfilled. The patient work of the peacemakers bore fruit; the prayers for peace were answered.

Implementing the Agreement was never going to be easy. It is a complex document with an in-built timetable. All parties to the Agreement are committed to taking certain steps. No single step can be taken in isolation, out of context.

The people of Ireland, North and South, have accepted this Agreement. They have stated quite clearly what they want. They want this Agreement implemented in its totality.

It must be recognised that we have come a long way. A lot of progress has been made. The prospect of turning back at this stage is simply unthinkable. Howeve,r making the changes in attitude and behaviour which we need if we are going to live in peace is slow work. Nevertheless those changes must be made. Chances of peace have been squandered in the past and must not be squandered now.

The story of Alfred Bernard Nobel, the founder of the Nobel Prize, has a lesson for all of us. He died in 1896. Earlier a false report of his death was published. It was accompanied by an account of his life story.

Nobel was upset, not at the false report of his death but rather by what he saw as a totally negative account of his life. It highlighted his invention of explosives and detonators and the immense fortunes which he made out of his discoveries. It put him in a very bad light. Given a second chance Nobel decided to change his attitude and to leave his fortune for the promotion of peace.

Here in Northern Ireland we have been given another chance to build peace. We must grasp the chance and make sure that it is not lost again. Yet, there are serious problems. People in both sections of the community have great fears about the future. Unionists fear being forced into a united Ireland against their will; Nationalists fear being once again marginalised. A lot of people need to be convinced that there will be no return to violence. They also need to be convinced that the commitment to peace and democratic means is genuine and that the commitment to accepting and implementing the Agreement in a meaningful way is genuine, It is very important that we all try to understand each others’ fears and respond to them in a spirit of patience and generosity.

Their right to religious freedom is a matter of great concern to many people. In his message for this World Peace Day, Pope John Paul II describes religious freedom as the very heart of human rights. This means that people have the right to manifest personal beliefs, whether individually or with others, in public or in private. I think it is important to state clearly that the Roman Catholic Church supports fully that right, the right to religious freedom which is also contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The decommissioning issue is also a reflection of fears. I would appeal to all sides not to allow the decommissioning issue to become an obstacle to the implementation of the Agreement. It seems to me that the sooner the Assembly and its Executive are up and running, the sooner trust will be given a chance to grow. It is important to realise that there are many issues, apart from decommissioning, which will cause difficulties and which will not be satisfactorily dealt with unless some degree of mutual trust and confidence is established. Decommissioning issues really are a reflection of the fears of both sides.

Republicans fear that there is a wish to exclude them in the future Northern Ireland, whereas Unionists fear a return to violence. I believe that these two perceptions are incorrect. Unionists are open to working with Sinn Fein and are, in many cases, already doing so, when they believe that violence has permanently ended, which, I believe, is now the case. The decommissioning of arms is seen as a token of the decommissioning of minds and hearts which must take place. All agree that it is the decommissioning of the mindset which is important. It is the outcome of the process which is really essential. It is the change of attitude of those who have been prepared to use arms to achieve political ends which is absolutely necessary.

Granted that how and when decommissioning takes place is a matter for discussion between paramilitaries and the decommissioning body, nevertheless the impact of some decommissioning now would be powerful. It would in itself be a wonderful confidence building measure because it would be a powerful statement of faith that the promise contained in the Good Friday Agreement can be achieved and will be achieved. It would be a clear vote of confidence in the ability of those carrying out the decommissioning to find their protection for the future, not in guns and bombs, but in the new political relationships which can be formed.

Decommissioning is not and never can be the foundation of a lasting peace. Peace can only be founded on the recognition of human dignity and on the respect for human rights which flows from that dignity. Peace flourishes where human rights are respected. However, decommissioning could be an important element in the resolution of the present impasse. When they endorsed the Good Friday Agreement by a substantial majority, the people of Ireland, North and South, were stating quite clearly that they oppose the use of physical force to achieve political ends. They were saying that there can be no place for private armies in the Northern Ireland of the future. It is wrong to speak of guns as being necessary for defence since in the past many people were murdered, despite the fact that paramilitaries were heavily armed on both sides. Decommissioning needs to start sometime, why not now? Sometimes in the negotiations of a political settlement the order in which the different pieces of the jig-saw are put in place may not be entirely to our liking. But the important thing is that eventually all the pieces do fall into place.

In his message for this World Peace Day Pope John Paul II states that respect for human rights is the secret of true peace. He identifies certain human rights which are particularly exposed to violation at the present time. The first of these is the basic right to life. To choose life, he says, “involves rejecting every form of violence, the violence of poverty and hunger as well as the violence of armed conflict and the violence of criminal trafficking in drugs”. “A genuine culture of life”, the Pope continues, “just as it guarantees to the unborn the right to come into the world, in the same way protects the newly born, especially girls, from the crime of infanticide. Equally it assures the handicapped that they can fully develop their capacities and ensures adequate care for the sick and the elderly”.

The establishment of a genuine culture of life is the great challenge of the present time. The approach of the new Millennium fills many hearts with hope throughout the world, just as the signing of the Good Friday Agreement filled many hearts with hope here in Ireland. That hope is for a fuller life in a more just and secure world. For that to happen the dignity of the poor and the marginalised must be protected. The rights of those who have no rights, must be recognised in a practical way. But that is a struggle which is best carried on, not with guns and bombs, but through political debate and dialogue.

The prophet Isaiah once had a wonderful vision of everlasting peace. In that vision he saw God wielding authority over the nations and adjudicating between many people.

“These will hammer their swords into ploughshares,
their spears into sickles.
Nation will not lift sword against nation,
there will be no more training for war”.

The Good Friday Agreement inspired a vision of peace for our land. That vision has received its share of setbacks, most notably in Omagh on 15th August last. Nevertheless it has survived the storm and continues on its journey of hope. It has done so because enough people have decided that the time has come to hammer the swords into ploughshares and the spears into sickles. They are determined that never again, in this part of the world at least, will nation lift up sword against nation. There will be no more training for war.

Of course there are still obstacles but obstacles are meant to be overcome. For me a suggestion already made by others is particularly attractive: It is that we follow the example of Chile and Argentina. In 1902, after decades of conflict, Chile and Argentina finally reached agreement. To mark the occasion they jointly constructed a 29 foot tall statue of Christ which was moulded from the metal of old guns and canons. On it they put this inscription:

“Sooner these mountains crumble to dust than the Argentinians
and Chileans break the peace sworn at the feet of Christ, the

Can we not turn all our weapons into one great statue of Christ as a symbol to the world that in future we will try to resolve our differences, not with guns and bombs, but only through the cut and thrust of political debate? As we enter the New Year let us redouble our efforts for peace. Let us continue to work and pray and hope for peace. Let us give our politicians the space and encouragement to win the peace which we all so desperately need and desire.

Jesus came into the world to restore the full dignity of every human person. He taught us to call God ‘Father’. He showed us how God’s love is boundless and everlasting. Jesus is close to us as we struggle to rid the world of war and want, of fear and hatred. If in 1999 we accept his invitation to share God’s love, then we will be richly blessed. For we will find there the secret of respect for the rights of every woman and man and the dawn of the new Millennium will find us, each one of us, more ready to build peace together.

A Happy New Year to you all. AMEN