PEACE IN NORTHERN IRELAND
ARTICLE FOR THE MONTH BY
MOST REV. SEAN BRADY, DCL
ARCHBISHOP OF ARMAGH
24 AUGUST, 1998
The stirring events of the past two months in Northern Ireland, namely the Drumcree Parade issue and the Omagh bombing, have pushed the topic of reconciliation or reconstruction centre stage as never before. People in Northern Ireland are no strangers to political and civil unrest, to communal trauma and upheaval, of the most extreme kinds. Yet as I write people are talking of a watershed in society. There is a perception that the absolute depths of depravity, as never before, have been reached in the Omagh bombing and in the arson attack in July which killed three young boys. Both communities feel utterly aggrieved and disgusted by these two dastardly acts and feel an unprecedented disdain and revulsion for the people who perpetrated them and for the mentality which made these deeds possible. What must now follow is the reconstruction or rather the rebuilding of relationships in society. Such rebuilding does not happen immediately or easily. The process is slow and difficult. The weight of the past burdens the present immensely. That burden is compounded by memories of violence, betrayal and oppression. Only the gift of reconciliation can really lift that burden.
THE GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT
The Good Friday Agreement of 10 April brought joy and hope to many people, not just in Northern Ireland, but everywhere in the world where the cause of genuine peace is cherished. Some were surprised that there was not more euphoria here in Northern Ireland. The explanation lies in the fact that people have had their hopes dashed so often in the past that they were almost afraid to believe and to hope; afraid to believe that such an agreement was possible, almost afraid to hope that it could work. However, the approval given to the terms of the Agreement in the subsequent Referenda, North and South in Ireland, and the confirmation of that approval reflected in the results of the election to the new Assembly in Northern Ireland, have helped to dispel the doubts.
The Good Friday Agreement points a way to peace. It points a way forward out of the conflict which has left so many people scarred and heartbroken in both nationalist and unionist parts of the community. It has left so many lives wrecked and so many families devastated, Catholics and Protestants.
A huge majority voted to approve the Good Friday Agreement because they appreciated that it was unique in the range of parties and governments which had taken part in the negotiations. Agreement was reached after an enormous commitment of time and energy, patience and resilience by all the participants.
The Agreement provides for a wide-ranging programme of human rights protection. All sections of the Community benefit from this. A just society is one that is regulated in such a way that human rights are respected, human dignity is protected and human development is promoted. The rights and interests of all sides of the community are protected in a way that simple majority rule did not achieve.
The spirit of hope of earlier this year was severely dented by the violent and sometimes tragic events of the month of July. The pain and fear experienced by so many began, once again, to cast doubt on the earlier optimism. The crisis reached its most awful moment with the murder of the three little Quinn brothers in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim on 12 July. The most chilling thought is that those murders could have happened at any one of a huge number of similar arson attacks on homes. Each of those attacks could have led to similar deaths.
A march forced down the Garvaghy Road on the third consecutive year without consultation with the residents would have been disastrous. It would have run the risk of unravelling the whole agreement and of handing a moral victory to those extremists who oppose the Agreement on the Nationalist side. Thankfully this did not happen.
The marching issue is in great need of a permanent solution. Northern Ireland can simply not continue enduring one disastrous summer after another. Building new relationships of trust and mutual respect and neighbourly harmony are absolutely necessary. Dialogue, accommodation and compromise must be our new weapons. Bigotry, sectarianism and intransigence must be decommissioned.
The last thirty years in the history of the Northern Ireland have been more remarkable for the divisions they have caused between the two communities rather than for the occasions and issues there have been to bring the two communities together. The joys of one community were not always shared by the other; the sadness and sorrows, angers and frustrations of one tradition were not always recognised by the other; indeed acknowledgement of same might not always have been appreciated or considered sincere or genuine.
The Omagh bombing seems to be a watershed, however; a republican bomb in a mainly nationalist town killing and maiming both Catholics and Protestants, men, women and children, from both Northern Ireland and the Republic, and from as far abroad as Spain, changed everything. This was a tragedy in which all could identify and all could share. Both the Irish and British Governments, both traditions in Northern Ireland, the public throughout Britain and Ireland, were all united in shock and horror. The appalling face of terrorism and the absolute futility and insanity of violence had been unmasked in their absolute nakedness and impoverishment as never before. The widespread desire to publicly show grief and manifest revulsion throughout the island by public demonstrations and acts of reflection and remembrance was quite unique and unprecedented in the history of Ireland.
We must now make certain that the hopes of peace are consolidated and not ruined by this bomb. We must redouble our prayers and efforts to ensure that the worst atrocity of the past thirty years may in fact prove to be the last. We do so in the belief that lasting peace is ultimately a divine gift as well as a human task. To do anything else other than to work and to hope and to pray for peace is to yield to despair and to give in to the temptation to believe that such peace is impossible. That would be the final surrender to those who instil terror and inflict violence. We owe it to the memory of those who have died to make sure that this does not happen and to do all we can to guarantee that they have not died in vain.
At the end of a particularly awful summer, and summer is always very difficult in these parts, the hope that the Good Friday Agreement is going to work, is still thankfully very much alive and well. The awful events of recent months have, in a perverse way, been a catalyst for good. We cannot be prisoners of our history, of strife and dissension forever. Of course there are very real fears on the Unionist side that they are in danger of being pushed by what they see as a vindictive and unforgiving nationalist population.
Some see their whole way of life under threat and receiving less protection than it deserves from a British Government that is basically, in their opinion, uncomprehending and unsympathetic. It is up to nationalists to recognise that these fears exist and to take decisive and generous action to deal with them.
On the Nationalist side there are the sceptics who have yet to be convinced that any real change is to be expected. Fine words must be matched with deeds. People must prove that they are prepared to change and work in partnership for a better future.
A NEW BEGINNING
This is a very hopeful, challenging moment in our history. Hopefully the majority which approved the Agreement will act consistently and continue to make of it which the prophet Isaiah calls ‘an enterprise of justice’. When the lawyer asked Jesus what must he do to possess eternal life, Jesus told him essentially to love God with all his heart and his neighbour as himself. Basically it means building and establishing good relationships. Today those relationships are taken to include right relationship with self, God, people, institutions and the environment.
In the Scriptures they have a word for that sort of reality – good relationships – they called it peace, Shalom – and the work of building those good relationships was called peace-making. Jesus Christ is the True Peacemaker. He has been compared to a cornerstone which unites two great walls coming from two different directions – the Jews and the Gentiles. He made one Church out of those two peoples – the believing people of the Jews and the believing people of the Gentiles. Two believing peoples can have their differences. They can have different traditions, different practices, different beliefs but they can also have much in common – common beliefs, common hopes, common hurts and common fears. The process of healing the hurts and calming the fears must begin now. It requires people of courage to always uphold what is fair and reasonable. We need people of faith to pray that this glorious opportunity for a new beginning is not squandered.
BREAKING DOWN THE BARRIERS
Jesus Christ brought peace because he broke down barriers. He brought forgiveness and he called people to repentance. He brought forgiveness and he called us all to repentance. For Christians, Jesus Christ comes first before loyalty to nation or ideology, party or politics. Which of us can say that this has ever and always been the case and that we do not share in any way in the blame associated with our present troubles. Which of us can say that we or our community have never failed to live together with our neighbour in peace and mutual respect.
I think the concept of respect is crucial. The word itself comes from the Latin word respicere. It means to look at something again and to see the good that is there.
Differences and divisions needed to be owned, discussed and directly confronted.
The fact is that we are all interdependent on this island of Ireland. The Islands of the North Atlantic (IONA) are interdependent. There are lots of hidden relationships founded on history and on geography. They need to be identified and acknowledged. We need to listen to each other’s story and to hear each other’s fears of being divided from one’s own place. History and geography are important but not all important. The vast majority of the peoples of this islands of the North Atlantic have positive feelings for each other and want to live in peace. Of course peace is much more than the absence of war. Getting rid of the fears and the threats is only the first step.
The plight of victims is crucial. Appeasement is not reconciliation. A lasting peace that trivialises suffering is not reconciliation. To call on those who have suffered to forget or overlook their suffering is in effect to continue the oppressive situation.
It is, in fact, wrong and unjust to say that the experiences of those who suffer are not important and that they themselves are not important to the process. By forgetting the pain and the hurt the victim is forgotten. So the causes of the suffering are not uncovered or dealt with.
Our only future lies in working together. I call on all people in Northern Ireland to commit themselves now to that work. I ask them not to “cross to the other side of the road” to avoid it, but to engage positively and proactively in this immense task of reconciliation.
The events of 1998, despite the recent atrocities, continue to provide solid grounds for believing that a lasting peace is attainable in our community. Guided by the Holy Spirit, Christians are called to play their part in building that peace and in ensuring that the community which emerges is the kind that Christ wants us to be.