FÉILE AN PHOBAIL – WEST BELFAST FESTIVAL
ST. OLIVER PLUNKETT TALK
“BORN FREE – WHAT FREEDOM IN IRELAND MEANS TO ME”
SUNDAY 31 JULY 2005
A Chairde, A pobail Dé. Ta an athas orm beith in bhur measc agus sibh ag ceiliuradl Féile An Phobail. Béal Feirstá
I am very pleased to be with you this evening for this 2nd Annual St. Oliver Plunkett lecture. Here in St. Oliver Plunkett’s Church I already feel at home, not only because St. Oliver Plunkett was one of my predecessors as Archbishop of Armagh, but also because the Parish Priest, Fr Martin Magill, like myself, studied at the Irish College in Rome. There St. Oliver Plunkett himself was once a student. Fr Martin and I were in the Irish College together in the 1980’s, he as a student and I as a member of staff. I would like to thank you Fr. Martin, along with Fr Terence and Fr Patrick, for your warm welcome this evening and for your very kind words of introduction.
I would also like to thank Glen Philips and the organisers of Féile an Phobail for their kind invitation to be part of this very impressive programme of events. The Féile in West Belfast has become a marvellous example of how to build a stronger and more united sense of community through constructive leadership and events, which both celebrate and challenge, who we are. In an area which has experienced so much of the trauma of recent years, those who inspire and develop this initiative deserve the highest praise. Helping individuals and communities to feel more positive about their identity and about their future is an essential part of building a more secure and peaceful society.
Thankfully, similar initiatives are developing in other parts of the community as well. I think we are slowly beginning to learn that confident identities do not have to be conflicting identities. Celebrating our culture, our convictions and our identity in a way which is both secure, yet respectful of others, open to dialogue, and accepting of criticism and change, is itself a mark of real freedom. And this brings me to the topic which I have been asked to address this evening: ‘Born free! My vision of freedom in Ireland today.’
Let me say first of all that when I received the invitation to the Féile I reached for my Irish dictionary, compiled by the Reverend Patrick S Dineen in 1927. There I saw that Féile means a ‘festival’, a ‘holiday’. And several féilta – festivals – are mentioned. La Féile Phadraig, la Féile Brighe and a host of other festivals of saints and religious events. When I investigated a little further I discovered that what united all these Féile’s was the celebration of a person or an event which represented the highest ideals and deepest convictions of the people. What also characterised the Féile was the gathering of a community. It is very hard, as you know, to celebrate on your own. We are, by our very nature, social people. A festival builds community. We like to dance and to sing, to gather and to play, to worship and to march, because we like to celebrate with others. Catholics in particular value this sense of community, stemming as it does from our deep, sometimes unconscious Eucharistic culture. The Mass, the Eucharist, creates community. As the Fathers of the early Church used to say, the Eucharist creates the Church.
And this brings me to the first part of my vision of freedom in Ireland today. The Ireland I would like to see is one in which we all have the freedom to celebrate the best of who we are. An Ireland where we take responsibility for the freedom of others as well as our own. As Archbishop Oscar Romero once said, ‘The surest way to protect our own freedom, is to fight for the freedom of others, especially of those who oppose us most.’
This is what Christianity calls the ‘Golden Rule’: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’
Whether it is the right to march as a Republican, an Orangeman or a Hibernian,
Whether it is right to funding for the Irish language or Ulster Scots,
Whether it is the right to have Catholic, Integrated or Irish schools, or
Whether it is the freedom to identify yourself as a migrant, an asylum seeker, or a refugee,
A genuinely free and confident Ireland will only come about when we stop thinking of our own rights and freedoms first, and take responsibility for the freedoms and rights of others, not least the other whom we find it most difficult to accept or to tolerate.
Such a formula for freedom was given to us by Christ himself. It has the potential to take us beyond mere tolerance and benign apartheid into the realms of interdependence, respectful understanding and mutual liberation. The truth is that there is no freedom in this society without the freedom of the other, whoever that other may be. I think that what we are only now beginning to realise is that, as a historically divided community, we do not hold our freedom in our own hands, we hold that freedom in each other’s hands.
Peace, in that sense, is not merely the absence of war. It cannot be reduced simply and solely to the maintenance of a careful balance of power between opponents. Rather, as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church points out, ‘it is founded on a correct understanding of the human person. Genuine peace requires the establishment of an order based on justice and love’. (494)
Peace is always threatened therefore when a person is not given all that is due to him precisely as a human person, when his dignity or equality is not respected or when the political system is not oriented to the common good. The defence and promotion of human rights, therefore, is essential for the building up of a peaceful society and the successful development of individuals, peoples and nations.
Violence on the other hand, is a lie. In the words of Pope John Paul II, ‘Violence is unworthy of man. Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity, the life and the freedom of human beings. The contemporary world therefore needs the witness of unarmed prophets.’
In this regard, I would like to say that the statement by the IRA on Thursday was, in my view, potentially the most powerful, significant and welcome move towards genuine freedom in Ireland to have emerged from any paramilitary organisation since the beginning of the troubles. By setting people free from the fear of violence, by confining the search for freedom to purely democratic and peaceful means, such actions open up the possibility of addressing the deeper and more urgent dimensions of human freedom. I hope that the words of the IRA are followed through. I hope others will respond with the same level of constructive thinking. Then, I am convinced, the way will be quite literally ‘freed up’ for new and previously unthinkable relationships to develop between people, parties and even religious leaders across this island and between this island and Britain.
We are in a new place. I commend the efforts of all who have worked so hard to get us here. Things will never be the same again. We have all learnt too much from the pain of the past to remain unchanged. Tragically, we have probably learnt most from our collective mistakes. But I believe that Ireland today has never been closer to the freedom for which she has yearned for so long. A new era of peaceful and fruitful progress between her diverse people and with her nearest neighbours is very close at hand. I am utterly convinced of that.
This brings me to the second part of what freedom in Ireland means to me. When I read the book of Exodus, I am reminded that the journey from captivity in Egypt to the promised land of modern day Israel, was a long and very often a confusing one. The chosen people spent almost forty years quite literally going round in circles. I think the parallels with our own peace process are fairly obvious. The search for freedom, whether at a personal or at a community level, is rarely straightforward.
Then we have those famous words which echo in the heart of every one who has undertaken the struggle for liberation across the world – the words of Moses to Pharaoh – ‘LET MY PEOPLE GO!’. All of this could lead you to believe that the story of the Exodus is a very powerful justification for everyone who ever opposed an oppressive regime. But that would be to miss the point. The point is that political freedom and the creation of a just social order are a noble and necessary aspiration, something deeply desired by God! Yet political freedom is only one part of the story of human freedom. Not only was the promised land a difficult place to get to. Once it was found, it required a lot of hard work to ensure that it was always a place of milk and honey. In that sense it was not just a place of freedom, but also a place of responsibility. This included a sense of responsibility to the widow, the stranger, the old and the orphan. It also involved forging new and mutually beneficial relationships with Israel’s neighbours, including Egypt her ancient adversary.
Economically and politically Israel, under David and Solomon, was always at her most successful and secure when she enjoyed constructive and peaceful relationships with her nearest neighbours. It is interesting that even today, one of the closest allies of Israel is Egypt, the country of her former captivity.
Again, the parallels with our own situation are obvious. Any dreamy notion of an ethnically pure, totally independent, ‘British-free’ concept of Irish Nationalism is just unrealistic, antiquated and unachievable. The relationship between Ireland and Britain is so complex and intertwined that there is no future for either the British or Irish traditions within the island of Ireland without the other. There is no future other than a shared future. What we are trying to work out at this period of history, however, is what the fairest and most favourable form of relationship between our historic and deeply cherished identities is. In this regard I believe there is no escaping the logic of the underlying principles of the Good Friday Agreement. The overwhelming endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement by the people of this island North and South was an act of self-determination. It aims at drawing an irreversible moral line under the complexities of the past. It established the principle of majority consent, with the assurance of continued devolution in Northern Ireland, as the democratic and peaceful way of resolving this historically difficult issue.
The latest IRA statement is bound to spark debate about the issue of a united Ireland. I hope it will also allow that debate to occur in a freer and much more constructive, perhaps less emotive atmosphere. What is still unclear, however, is to what extent elements of the unionist and loyalist tradition are also willing to commit to taking part in such a debate on purely peaceful and democratic terms. Part of the moral complexity of our past, was the part played by the threat of violence from the Unionist community in the decision to create Northern Ireland as a separate entity.
What freedom in Ireland means to me is that that historic threat from the Unionist tradition is also manifestly and verifiably removed from the debate about our shared future. Hopefully, in coming months this issue will be subjected to the same level of scrutiny, political determination and media interest as has quite properly focused on the issue of the threat of Republican violence in the past.
In this context, what freedom in Ireland means to me is a total end to the fear-threat relationship. That threat has existed for far too long between the British and Irish traditions on this island. Too many lives have been sacrificed in the pursuit of a superficial and outdated understanding of freedom. It is time to construct a new vision of Irish Freedom, one which is the fruit of respectful dialogue, trusting interdependence and mutual liberation from the things which hold us back from creating a shared and better future.
Part of this liberation includes taking shared responsibility for law and order. One of the most important consequences of the Exodus story is the vital connection between a successful society and an effective system of law and order. Just when the people were at their lowest ebb in the desert, when they were beginning to quarrel among themselves and lose their sense of purpose as a community, God introduced the law of the covenant through Moses. It is expressed in the Ten Commandments. The purpose of the law was to protect the common good, to support and protect the cohesion of the community. In recent years, there has been a danger that the new language of freedom and morality, the language of human rights, is becoming disconnected from the corresponding sense of responsibility towards the community. More and more people are saying ‘I know my rights’ but fewer and fewer people seem to be willing to acknowledge that they also have a duty, a responsibility to the community in which they live. To declare that ‘I know my rights’ without any sense of duty towards the community is an expression of selfishness rather than an expression of freedom.
This is one of the many reasons why I am so pleased to see so many representatives of the other Churches here this evening. One of the many things which the Churches share in common is a concern that the promotion of a culture of rights, without any corresponding emphasis on the duty of the individual toward society, will further emphasise the false concept of freedom. That is, freedom seen as a licence to do what I want without regard to anybody else. The Gospel affirms and the Catholic Church in its teaching constantly defends the inherent dignity of the human person and the importance of the personal rights and freedoms which flow it. The document Joy and Hope of the Second Vatican Council points out that our contemporaries greatly value freedom, and rightly so. But it goes on to say, ‘Man’s dignity requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint.’ (#17) Furthermore, ‘the social nature of man shows that there is an interdependence between the personal development of the individual and the improvement of society as a whole… Life in society is not something accessory to man: through his dealings with others, through mutual service, and through fraternal dialogue, man develops his talents and becomes able to rise to his destiny.’ (#25) As such, the document goes on to say, ‘Every group must take into account the needs and legitimate aspirations of every other group, and still more of the human family as a whole.’ (#26)
During these days the images of the terrible famine in Niger are etched firmly in our minds. It is difficult not to feel that all our talk of politics and peace processes is somewhat of a luxury in comparison to the appalling deprivation which is being suffered by so many people in the developing world. It is a stark reminder that not all struggles for freedom are equally important or equally urgent.
Poverty, lack of water, medicine, education and economic access, wherever they are to be found, these are real forms of oppression. They happen as a direct result of our choices here and in the other richest countries in the world. Yet why do we not feel the same passion, invest the same determination, focus the same resources into responding to death of a child every three seconds through hunger as we do about sorting out our long standing and somewhat self-sustained difficulties? Why do we feel so passionate about equality in our own society and yet tolerate with such cavalier detachment, the gaping global inequalities of which we are a part?
What freedom in Ireland means to me is to be part of a society which has a deep sense of responsibility for the poor and deprived of the world. An Ireland which not only keeps its promises to meet its Millennium Goals for development aid but which is free enough from its own preoccupations to heed the needs and the cry of the poor and place them firmly before the gaze of the world. It is about living in a country which aspires to economic and social inclusion for all its citizens and which values equal access to the very best in education, a key avenue to personal and political emancipation.
Another aspect of freedom which is important in my vision of Ireland is respect for the right to religious freedom. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church points out that ‘the effective recognition of the right to freedom of conscience and religious freedom is one of the highest goods and one of the most serious duties of every person that truly wishes to ensure the good of the individual and society.’
I sometimes worry that, in the context of the parading issue, Catholics are not always sufficiently aware of the serious nature of this principle in terms of their duty to respect the religious character of such parades. While parading in public spaces does not form a major part of Catholic religious practice, except for Corpus Christi processions, the duty to respect the conscience of my neighbour, especially in religious matters, is a formal tenet of Catholic teaching. It is up to others to determine what they regard as worship, to the extent that such parades are specifically religious events, the claim of religious freedom suggests that they should be treated with great respect.
On the other hand, the right to religious freedom is not of itself an unlimited right. As the Compendium explains, ‘The just limits of the exercise of religious freedom must be determined in each social situation with political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good.’ (422) In other words, the limits of my own rights are the rights of others. When there is a conflict of rights, recent experience in Derry affirms that dialogue in an atmosphere of generosity and mutual respect is the most effective way of reaching an accommodation. I am always struck by the fact that in the Gospels Jesus is always willing to talk to those he wishes to change, irrespective of their status or their state of life.
What freedom in Ireland means to me, therefore, is a society in which the rights of religion, including the right to a religious procession in a public place, are treated with deep respect and where those who wish to demonstrate their faith in such a way, do so with due respect and courtesy for their neighbour. In imitation of Jesus, I would suggest that such respect includes a willingness to dialogue with those whom we wish to change and whose interests may be affected by our acts.
As I hope the other ministers of religion present will agree, religion can also have a vital role in responding to one terrible form oppression which is claiming the lives of more and more of our young people in particular. I refer to the oppression of lack of meaning and despair. What freedom in Ireland means to me is living in a society which is not embarrassed or afraid of its religious and spiritual heritage. That heritage has provided its ancestors with meaning and strength of character for centuries and millennia. Genuine freedom means living in a country in which people are not held captive to an enslaving craving for wealth, success or pleasure without meaning. It means belonging to a society which acknowledges that we are not only social beings, but that we are spiritual beings. It means seeing that without some access to meaning and values beyond ourselves, we are vulnerable to new and enfeebling forms of slavery. Just talk to those who are addicted to alcohol, drugs, sex or car crime as a means of escaping from the dreariness of life or despair. They have become slaves of the very thing which they believed would set them free. What freedom in Ireland means to me is setting aside sufficient resources and providing sufficient personal support to assist those who are tempted to despair or held captive by addiction.
I also believe that the price being paid for the absence of support for policing in certain areas at the moment is too high. Every free society requires an effective system of law and order. Such systems are human and therefore, like all things human, are less than perfect. But as the Patten Report acknowledged, they can be changed. They can be changed from within, especially when sufficient numbers participate to make that police service representative of the community.
There are growing fears that the constant criticism and demonisation of the police service is contributing to a more general breakdown in society and to a lack of respect for law and order, particularly among the young. I have great confidence in the ability of young nationalists and young unionists, along with others, to play their part in constructing and maintaining a police service which all sections of the community can support. I have no hesitation in calling on young Catholics to join their Protestant counterparts and others in following the noble vocation of policing and serving the whole community with courage and pride as members of the PSNI. What freedom in Ireland means to me is that those same young people would be respected and accepted by others in their community for the choice they have made, whether they are from West Belfast, Portadown, the Shankill, East Tyrone or South Armagh. What freedom in Ireland also means to me is that those young people, once they have entered the police service, would feel free, if they are unhappy about any aspect of what they find there, that they will to seek to change it,
Finally, what freedom in Ireland means to me, is living in a society which cultivates the values of genuine freedom as well as the attitudes which underpin it and the laws which protect that freedom.
And this brings me back to where I started, to St. Oliver Plunkett. If St. Oliver Plunkett’s life testifies to anything, is testifies to the truth that all authentic freedom begins within. If we are not free within ourselves, then we are not free at all.
After he was condemned a tremendous peace and serenity came to Oliver as he prepared for death. Let me quote from a letter he wrote at the time:
‘The sentence of death was passed against me on the 15th but it has not terrified nor caused me to lose even a quarter of an hour of sleep. I am as innocent of all treason as the child born yesterday. I have considered that Christ, by his fears and sufferings, merits for me to be without fear. I do forgive all who had a hand, directly or indirectly, in my death and in my innocent blood. My accusers swore that I had 7,000 men in arms to promote the Catholic cause and that I had the harbour of Carlingford ready to bring in the French. Such romances as these would not be believed by any jury in Ireland. I salute all my friends over there as if I had named them and I recommend myself to their prayers. None of them are to be grieved for my death, being as innocent of what was laid to my charge, as the child unborn’.
And so, I ask you to consider the example of Oliver Plunkett. He wasn’t free from external coercion because he was arrested. He was brought to Tyburn, where he was brought to the scaffold and put to death. But look at the marvellous freedom he had – the inner freedom – the freedom within – totally free of fear. He didn’t even lose a quarter of an hour’s sleep – not even the night before his execution. He wasn’t afraid to face his accusers or his God. He was free from self-pity. He was not moaning and groaning.
This is the kind of freedom I believe in. Freedom from the captivity of fear, of greed, of anger or of revenge. Freedom to be able to forgive, freedom to acknowledge my part in the wrongs of the past, freedom to deal constructively with the past and to bring it healing, especially to those who have been hurt by it. Freedom to move from the feeling of being a victim to that of survivor, to that of victor – victor over past adversity. For that victory to take place, two things are needed – the healing of past memories and the forgiveness of past wrongs.
Oliver Plunkett was free from bitterness towards those who gave false witness – people from his own flock, who had given false testimony against him. The evidence needed from Ireland to corroborate the allegations against Oliver Plunkett, was supplied by some of the suspended and renegade priests whom Oliver had disciplined over the previous decade. Later some other people were enlisted, including some lay people, who were promised freedom from jail along with money if they would testify against him. Oliver was well aware of this but said that he was completely free from any bitterness towards them. He forgave them totally from the heart.
And this is where we come ultimately to the example of Jesus. Others focused on external observance of the laws of religion and social custom. Jesus, in his great Sermon on the Mount, focused on the attitudes and the values from which all our actions flow – the beatitudes. Happy are the gentle, the pure in heart, those who hunger and thirst for what is right, those who mourn. He wrote the law of freedom not on tablets of stone, but on our hearts. That is the freedom I celebrate at this West Belfast Feile – Freedom of the heart. WB Yeats once said that ‘too long a sacrifice, makes a stone of the heart’. Maybe that is what we have come to realise. Thirty five years is a very long time. What freedom in Ireland means to me, therefore, is removing the stones from our hearts and allowing ourselves to be touched by the pain and sorrow of those who died, by the love and courage of those who suffered and touched by the heartbreak of those who are left behind. The greatest freedom of all is the freedom of Jesus on the cross to forgive and to love. What freedom in Ireland means to me is that nobody is free, until everybody is free. The free and selfless heart of Jesus speaks to all, especially the least and says, you are not free, until he or she too is free. My prayer is that, in imitation of St. Oliver Plunkett, we may come to know that freedom of the heart by which Jesus has set us free and be willing and able to forgive those who have trespassed against us.
A pobal Dé – Guimid orthu siud uile a bhuil cúram poiblí orthu. Go saothrai siad ar son an Chirt agus na Siochána Fírinní.
You must be logged in to post a comment.