1 NOVEMBER, 2001

Dear friends, it is good to see you all here in Belfast. To our American guests from the Presbyterian and Catholic Churches at this historic time I offer a most warm welcome. Céad míle fáilte – a hundred thousand welcomes. I also extend a warm welcome to my friends from the Presbyterian Church in Ireland
I begin by expressing to our visitors the heartfelt sympathy of the people of Ireland on the awful attack of 11 September. Few countries in the Western world can empathise with the US on this traumatic experience in the way Ireland can. Our experience of violence admittedly has been of a vastly different nature and of a radically different scale and timeframe. Nonetheless we know of the horror of the unsuspected attack and of the grief of those who have lost loved ones. Before dusk on September 11 last it was obvious to Irish people that the world order had radically changed – that what happened in New York and Pennsylvania and Washington DC, in addition to being a tragedy for thousands of families and commercial families, indeed to a whole nation, would also have a profound effect on the whole world, not least in Ireland. I dare to say, however, that the attack has further strengthened the bonds of friendship between these islands and the US – that in a peculiar kind of way our own political problems in Northern Ireland have been set in stark relief in face of a very sinister international threat – more of which I will speak anon.

The Inter-Church Committee on Northern Ireland is a much-prized institution – a term I use advisedly since it is now in its 11th year. The contribution of the United States of America to peace in this country has been very considerable and absolutely pivotal. Without the sustained interest and intervention of the United States in recent years, I do not believe that we would be so far on in the peace process. Indeed, without the US, we might not have had or still have a peace process at all. At the time of the Good Friday Agreement the American, British and Irish Administrations seemed to work in unison – providing an international dynamic and energy which could not be arrested by any problem or obstacle. For this we must truly thank God.

The Churches in the US, particularly the Presbyterian and Catholic Churches, have played a pivotal role over the years. They were voices for moderation and for non-violence. They wrote memoranda and compiled reports which truly made a difference. They interested themselves in various individual cases of pastoral and humanitarian concern, many of which had little or no media profile in Ireland or in the United States. They brought, as appropriate, various issues of justice and equality to the attention of their elected representatives. They kept faith with the local Churches in Ireland and the lands of their forefathers on these Northern Isles. This interest and concern continue and for this we are truly grateful.

The advent of the Internet means that many of our American friends here present are no strangers to the Belfast and Dublin newspapers. They are up-to-speed on Northern Ireland in a way scarcely possible before. Nonetheless, as requested, I wish to deal with some of the important issues which face our country at this time and specifically under the following four headings: decommissioning, response to decommissioning, policing and sectarianism.


The word “historic” has been much used in the past week to describe the act of decommissioning by the IRA. What many people feared would never happen and others hoped would not happen, eventually came to pass. The issue of decommissioning truly had and I suppose, still has the capacity to derail the whole peace process.

After the Irish Civil War in the 1920s weapons were not decommissioned, but allowed to rust. This has happened in other countries after periods of conflict. Decommissioning of illegally held weapons is undoubtedly part of the Good Friday Agreement. The challenge for its architects at the time of the Agreement was to construct a package capable of bringing the various strands of opinion and political aspiration together. This was truly a mammoth task, one, which I think, those responsible admirably succeeded in achieving, and decommissioning of paramilitary weapons was destined to be high on the agenda in this regard. Decommissioning has a deep importance and symbolism for many Unionists. For Nationalists, in general, silent guns pose no threat.

The confirmation last week by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning that an act of decommissioning had taken place was, in general, greeted with great relief by pro-Agreement people in the North, both Protestant and Catholic. Undoubtedly it is another major step forward in the peace process. It would be foolhardy to believe that there will not be other crises – that many will not call for more decommissioning at an early date, that the nature of the decommissioning and the role of the IICD will not be seriously questioned, that the target date of 2002 for the completion to the process of disarmament will not be emphasised, and that once again the institutions of the Agreement will not be jeopardised. However, the decommissioning process has begun and the Republican family has, in general, apparently remained intact which is undoubtedly a great tribute to the leadership. For Republicans to hold back on decommissioning really seems to play into the hands of their anti-Agreement opponents. The challenge facing Republicans was quite stark – only decommissioning could save the Agreement and its institutions.

From a Nationalist perspective no one can underestimate the importance of the power-sharing arrangements now in place. These institutions – The Assembly, Executive, North-South Ministerial Council, North-South Bodies – underline that the State of Northern Ireland acknowledges in the very essence of its being that Nationalist and Republican aspirations must be accommodated – that they are valued and noble and legitimate aspirations in themselves – that Northern Ireland is British, Orange, Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist but also and in a real sense, no less so, Irish, Green, Catholic, Nationalist, Republican. The presence of Nationalists and Republicans in the government of Northern Ireland in the previously despised Stormont eloquently testifies to the “equality principle” so often flagged.

Did the events of September 11 precipitate the process of decommissioning? There are various views in this regard. Undoubtedly now in the Western world there is a new fear of terrorism, an unqualified and unequivocal abhorrence of it. Fear of losing friends in the United States, particularly in the wake of the Colombian affair, undoubtedly focused minds and in a sense set the inescapable context for a very difficult and unpalatable move for many Republicans. However, political realities must eventually be acknowledged and rubicons must always be crossed.


The demilitarisation that has taken place in the aftermath of the decommissioning is to be welcomed. Observation posts and sangars are very obviously blight on the landscape. The people who live in their shadow not surprisingly find them an unacceptable intrusion into their daily lives.

We look forward to an increasingly normal society when Northern Ireland can be truly and fully demilitarised. The extraordinary security measures of the past thirty years must certainly not continue for one day longer than absolutely necessary. Considerations of the furthering of normal civilian life, as opposed to the dictates of a simply security agenda, must be to the fore.

The decision by the Ulster Unionists to return to the Executive in the wake of decommissioning is to be greatly welcomed. It is important that measures of graciousness and generosity are reciprocated with generosity and graciousness and all those committed to the Agreement make it as easy as possible for one another. We pray that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister positions will soon be confirmed and that the work of the Executive can continue unhindered and unthreatened.


Since the last meeting of this group there have been huge developments in the field of policing. Next Sunday the Royal Ulster Constabulary will cease to be and the Police Service of Northern Ireland will come into being. This truly is an historic event and very radically changes the perception of policing, if not the nature of policing also.

None of us should underestimate the wrench that exists for many Unionists and Protestants in the name-change of the Police. They see it as denigrating the memory of the 300 members who were killed during the Troubles; they see it as trashing the sacrifices, which many policemen and their families made to prevent this State from collapsing into utter anarchy. Their feelings must be deeply respected. By the same token we cannot ignore that in many Nationalist and Republican areas there was complete and utter alienation from the Police. When a community feels that it is part of the policing process only in so far as it is policed, then there is something radically wrong. A Police Force where Catholics were so radically underrepresented could never do its job successfully.

I am very relieved and happy that 50% of the first batch of new recruits, numbering 308 in total, for the new policing service are Catholic. What will develop over the years is a police service that is perceived to be as Catholic as it is Protestant, as nationalist as it is unionist. Policing in any society is never easy and this is particularly true in a divided society. And in a deeply polarised society such as this one, it is all the more imperative that the different strands, which make up the society, are properly and justly represented in the police force. I believe that policing in this society will one day, hopefully not in the too distant future, be seen to be truly non-political and that it can be exercised in the normal and relaxed way.

I pay tribute to the present leadership in the RUC who have had to make courageous operational changes in recent years and to accommodate to a whole new approach. This I think they have done with much professionalism.

It is a source of regret that Sinn Féin has not taken its seats on the new Policing Board. However, I hope that this can be corrected in the not too distant future. The role of the Policing Board is crucial since it involves the community, emphasising that the police force is of the community, not just in it. The Policing Board will have to sort out the thorny issue of flags, emblems and symbols. I am absolutely convinced that these must be neutral and should, in so far as possible, be devoid of any political, national or historical connotation. Emblems play a major part in any society but are all the more powerful and potentially destructive in a divided society. I hope that the issue of emblems can be satisfactorily worked out.
The Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has been in existence for one year and has made a very powerful and favourable impact. The news reported earlier this week that the son of the Ombudsman and her SDLP Councillor husband was picked out from among a group of his school mates and beaten up by a group of hooded men is deeply disturbing and is a reminder of the still-existent evil and shadowy side of life in this country.

I should also like to pay tribute Mr Tom Constantine, Oversight Commissioner for Police Reform in Northern Ireland. In January of this year his first report was released outlining his intended approach and methodology. His second was published last September. His task is to oversee the progress of the changes recommended by Patten. In his second report he notes that the final responsibility for progress rests with the various institutions. He cautions that lack of financial support could create an impact, which would be more adverse than lack of political will, or resistance to change. He says that his policy is that the oversight process will be apolitical, objective, rigorous and of the highest standard of integrity.


Many years ago the Irish Inter-Church Committee identified sectarianism as one of the root causes of conflict in our society. They commissioned a study which has been published entitled, Sectarianism, and since then another document entitled, Beyond Sectarianism, has been published.

I am unsure to what degree the political progress of recent years has dented the body of sectarianism, which exists to an unnaturally virulent degree in this society.

What we can be sure of, however, is that with the great decrease of violence in recent years the existence and nature of sectarianism in our society have been unmasked in a way that was simply not possible in a era when violence and collateral security measures prevailed. Northern Ireland society of the past thirty years was to a great degree radically dysfunctional – shootings, killings, bombings, revenge attacks political and social chaos. This environment was one in which sectarianism could flourish, but in a very subtle way in so far that some of its virulent forms were concealed. It is only now that in relative peace and political progress, in the absence of atrocities forcing other issues off the airwaves and off the front page of the newspapers, that the insidious nature and sustained occurrence of various forms of sectarianism, some of them new, are surfacing.

Sectarianism, I feel, will be the last of Northern Ireland’s problems to be dealt with. Political measures can perhaps be more easily taken to deal with other issues. Dealing with sectarianism, however, because of its elusive and spasmodic nature, and because of the deeply polarised nature of our society, in a sense no less polarised by political progress, is more difficult.

The current harassing of children and their parents on their way to school in North Belfast has been widely condemned. Commentators have offered various reasons for the sense of alienation of the Protestant community in that area. Some have suggested that adapting to the new political realities of our time is simply too difficult for many at this time. Some commentators have interestingly pointed out that while sectarianism may be condemned, the level of tolerance of its existence is very high.
If it is difficult to imagine children and their parents being harassed on their way to school in any other society in the Western world, it is all the more difficult to imagine it being tolerated in any way in any other society. That this problem in North Belfast has persisted for so long and has taken so many awful forms, while the greater population of the land continue their lives as normal, to a certain degree oblivious to the problem, is distressing.

Sectarianism exists in many forms and both communities are affected by it and are guilty of it. I am convinced, however, that we need much more public debate about its nature and its prevalence. In situations of community strife we hear a lot of talk about the two communities coming to an amicable resolution. This can give the impression that objectively both sides are equally in the right or equally in the wrong, when in fact this may not be the case at all. Objectively it could be argued that one side has the greater balance of rights – but who or what is objectivity in a divided society?

There is great tolerance in this country for words and conduct, graffiti and posters, which essentially are offensive to those of the other tradition. This needs to be tackled more determinedly at government level.
It is interesting to note that in Britain at present a debate has begun as to what constitutes religious harassment. I am absolutely convinced that we have a lot to learn from many countries in the Western world with ethnic minorities where a raft of legislation has been enacted to ensure the protection of their rights. The work of the various bodies established under the Agreement, including the new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission will be invaluable in this regard.


Ten years ago or even five years ago, few of us could have imagined that so much political progress could have been made in Northern Ireland. We are coming out of just not thirty years of violence but several hundred years of conflict. We are truly a traumatised people. Peace will take a long time to really root. Healing the hurts and caring for victims will take time. Reconciliation and forgiveness will take time. There will undoubtedly be many obstacles and crises ahead. Yet I am convinced that the path to peace is irreversible. The thrust of our society towards peace and reconciliation is irrevocable.

Accommodation is the way forward. Northern Ireland is truly British and Irish, Catholic and Protestant, Unionist and Irish. The term “compromise” needs to be more widely used and the concept more deeply and widely interiorised. When the work of justice or equality is done we need to hear less use of the word “concession”. Understanding, respect, goodwill, generosity and graciousness need to be the hallmarks of relations in our divided society. Peace is possible. Justice and equality and a proper standard of living for all are possible. There will be hiccups. Progress will undoubtedly be tortuously slow on many fronts. However, I remain strongly hopeful that Northern Ireland can truly jettison some very painful and cumbersome baggage from the past and emerge as a civil and working and workable society.

That a large section of the Protestant community has from the beginning been opposed to the Good Friday Agreement and that some of those Protestants who voted for the Agreement now are against it, is deeply worrying. People must seek to understand this mindset and to address, where possible, legitimate fears, concerns. They must build trust and confidence and give evidence of sincerity of intention and earnestness of endeavour.

The Churches, however, individually and collectively, must continue to speak out in the cause of what is right. We must be voices of moderation and of courage. Perhaps the most difficult thing for any clergyman to do is to challenge his own people. This, however, is part of the Gospel. I pray that we ministers may have that courage.

I am just back from Synod of Bishops where we talked about the need for the bishop to be a sign of peace and reconciliation. I think every minister of the Christian Gospel must be a sign of peace and reconciliation. The Synod also recommended that the bishop should

1. Condemn the use of violence as a means of conflict
2. Point out the causes of division and strife – causes, which are often founded in injustice.
3. Promote dialogue to bring about reconciliation.
4. Take pastoral care of victims, especially victims of violence and especially our refugees and asylum seekers.
5. Urge people, by word and example, to be reconciled, not only with their neighbour but also with God, who is the source of true peace of heart and mind.