78 Bishops Gate London EC2N 4AG

“Faith and Identity – A Catholic Perspective on Northern Ireland”
The Key to Peace is the Will to Embrace

Thank you for your very warm welcome. Let me begin by saying what a pleasure it is to be here in this beautifully restored Church of St. Ethelburga and to give the first in this new series of lectures on Faith and Identity, organised by the St. Ethelburga Centre for Reconciliation. The fact that this Centre is so closely associated with the tragic consequences of the conflict in Northern Ireland gives a certain poignancy, perhaps even a certain symbolism to this evening’s event. For many people the conflict in Northern Ireland is primarily about the relationship between faith and identity. But as I hope to demonstrate in the course of my talk, the complexity of the relationship between these two recurring themes in modern conflict, does not permit such an easy analysis. No one in Northern Ireland is fighting over theological matters. And just as the religious commitment of people such as Bishop Chartre, Cardinal Basil Hume, Rev. Sowerbutts and Viscount Massereene turned the tragedy of this place into a powerful sign of reconciliation and hope, so I hope to convince you that, on balance, religious faith and the Churches have contributed positively to the resolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

As one Unionist politician has pointed out recently:
…without the Churches, for all their faults… the period of the Troubles, would have been much worse. Although the ‘two communities’ are now highly segregated in terms of where they live, work or go to school, on the whole there is probably still more civility between them than there would have been without the presence of the Churches. The Churches have been one of the factors that have prevented Northern Ireland from following the path of Kosovo or Bosnia.

Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that the interaction between faith and identity does remain a key social, cultural and political factor in Northern Ireland. Protestants are more likely to be interested in British culture and music and sport. Catholics are more likely to be interested in Irish culture, Celtic music and Gaelic games. To a great extent, Catholics and Protestants live in separate areas, are educated apart, play and watch different sports and develop different cultural identities.

So what is the origin of this close connection between religious, political and cultural identity in Northern Ireland?


Well, as is the case with so many of the conflicts in our modern world, to understand the present we must first unpack the past. In the 16th century, English Tudor monarchs began a conquest of Ireland. When King Henry VIII embraced the Protestant religion in the 1530s he decreed that Ireland should do likewise. In 1541 he declared himself King of Ireland. Initially, Protestantism made little headway in Catholic Ireland and it was not until the reign of his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, that the Anglican Church of Ireland slowly began to take root.

Many historians maintain that the most significant event that happened in Northern Ireland during the 16th century was the Plantation of Ulster. This involved the systematic introduction of English and Scottish settlers, designed to establish English rule and suppress the Irish. Land was taken from the native Catholic population and redistributed to settlers, often as a reward for services rendered to the Crown.

During the Plantation of Ulster some 30,000 Scottish people, mainly of Presbyterian faith, and a substantial number of English colonists, arrived in Ulster and were given land previously owned by Catholics. The result of the Plantation left thousands of Irish Catholics dispossessed and, as a result, very resentful. This in turn, led in 1641, to an armed rebellion by Catholics. In the uprising, and in the ten year civil war that followed, many Protestants were massacred. These events profoundly shaped Protestant popular opinions of Catholics as being untrustworthy and hostile. The result was that the Protestant community in Ireland began to develop a siege mentality and to equate Protestantism with being English and Catholicism with being Irish.

Furthermore, the 17th century English civil war between Charles I and the English Parliament also had far reaching consequences in Ireland. Oliver Cromwell, leader of the victorious parliamentary forces, maintained the English presence in Ireland and consolidated his success in Britain by quashing ensuing Irish rebellions. Following Cromwell’s military success, the 1653 Act of Settlement involved further large-scale confiscation of Irish lands and their transfer from Catholic to Protestant ownership. This served to fuel a further legacy of hatred and bitterness by Catholics towards the English and indeed towards Protestantism.

Now allow me fast-forward to 1685 when the accession of the Catholic Stuart King, James II, to the British throne sparked a new wave of discord in Ireland.

The Protestant aristocracy in Britain vehemently opposed their Catholic King who sought to expand his power at their expense. On being deposed, James fled to Ireland, where, with the exception of the Protestant community in Northern Ireland, he found many willing and sympathetic supporters. During this time, the British throne had been offered to a Protestant Dutch Prince, William of Orange, as part of a pan-European coalition supported by the Pope, against the dominant French King, Louis XIV. William of Orange and his supporters followed the deposed James II to Ireland and defeated him at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. This victory effectively crushed the hopes of the Catholic political nation. 20,000 of the gentry went into exile on the Continent in what is known as the Flight of the Earls. In Europe the victory was celebrated as an important one for those who were opposed to the French Alliance. William’s defeat of James at the Battle of the Boyne continues to be celebrated annually by the Orange Order on the 12th of July. The association of Orange Marches with this victory and the subsequent domination of Catholics still play a significant part in the reaction of Catholics to the issue of Orange Parades. For Irish Protestants who had supported William, this war had been a great success. It was followed by severe penal laws, which decreed that only Protestants could sit in Parliament, hold office under the Crown or take part in local government. And this too left its own bitter legacy. It was seen as a further injustice in a course of gradual domination, firstly political – with the removal of the Irish Parliament; secondly economic – with the Plantation of the land and thirdly religious – with the anti-Catholic Penal laws.

British Rule of all of Ireland continued until 1920. Then, after the 1916 Rising and the Civil War that followed, Ireland was partitioned. Two parliaments were set up, one in Dublin for the 26 Counties and one in Belfast for the six counties of Ulster which now make up the entity we know as Northern Ireland. For Protestants the validity of the Northern Ireland State as an integral part of the UK, resided in a morally justified and legally binding agreement between two sovereign nations. For Northern Catholics, however, Northern Ireland was a gerrymandered and unworkable entity, to which they had not given their consent and which had been conceded by Britain in direct response to the threat of violence from the Protestant community.


Consequently, after the partition of the island of Ireland in 1921, the ecclesiastical and political experience of Catholics in the north of the island was to become radically different from that of their southern counter-parts. While the fledging State in the South focused on the task of becoming an independent nation, discrimination in housing, voting, employment and exclusion from the levers of power and security, resulting particularly in a lack of representation in the civil service, the judiciary and policing, meant that the new Northern Ireland State was quickly becoming a ‘cold house for Catholics’, a phenomenon famously captured by the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, James Craig, when he declared that, ‘All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State’.

In the midst of such discrimination and a deep sense of alienation from the Northern State, the structures of education, health, parish and community provided by the Catholic Church, made it a very natural alternative source of political and cultural identity for Northern Nationalists. As one commentator explains:
After partition Northern Nationalists kept a respectful distance from the State and became ‘a society within a society’. The Catholic Church was the key institution in integrating the community and clerical leadership was important. There was an intertwining of Catholicism, Irish culture and political nationalism.

This sense of collective self-sufficiency and alienation from the Protestant, Unionist entity called Northern Ireland, was further compounded by the Catholic experience of the Orange Order, actively promoted at that time by many Protestant clergy and politicians. Defined and motivated by its sacred oath to ‘strenuously oppose the fatal errors of Rome’ and to uphold ‘a Protestant State for a Protestant People’, the Orange Order had become a hugely powerful and unifying force within the otherwise disparate elements of Protestantism and Unionism. As one historian explains:

The Orange Order was a powerful political force, nominating 25 per cent of delegates to the Ulster Unionist Council… Unionist politicians joined the Order as a matter of course, marched in its parades and affirmed its beliefs in their speeches. Loyalists exercised constant vigilance to detect and deter possible Catholic threat and to guard against any softening of unionist or anti-Catholic principles…. Protestantism was all-pervasive in the public culture: in the street preachers, the missions, the Protestant Sundays, the public prominence of the Orange Order. Unionist governments systematically identified the State with this
culture and the Protestant Churches reciprocated. There was an interrelation of Unionism and Orangeism.

At the heart of this alignment between Orangeism and Unionism was an often unspoken ecclesiology of separation – an ecclesiology of election and exclusion, rooted in the historic memory of both the Plantation of Ulster and the Battle of the Boyne (which I have already referred to). Ostensibly a religious institution based on the fundamental principles of the Reformation, as well as the instrument of public celebration of Protestant possession of the ‘chosen land’ of Ulster, the Orange Order became known to Catholics as a powerful vehicle of social, economic and political exclusion and a key unifying force for the anti-Catholic religious superiority of the otherwise fragmented Protestant and Unionist tradition.

It should be no surprise then that up to the 1970’s, both communities in Northern Ireland lived largely autonomous, independent and politically divided lives. Critically, from the point of view of our theme, what characterised, motivated and sustained this experience of mutual exclusion and self-sufficiency in religious terms, was the existence of two static, self-contained and mutually excluding identities in which the proximity between political and cultural identity, and the visible structures of ecclesial life, were presumed to translate, more or less directly, into similarly self-contained and mutually exclusive ecclesial-political identities.


An important factor in the development of this overlap between religious and political identity in Northern Ireland was the fact that the proximity between the Church and the world, that tension between being in the world yet not of the world (John 17:14), is a notoriously difficult tension to keep in balance in a situation of communal conflict, particularly where the conflict is defined along religious lines. As the Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf points out:

‘Churches often find themselves accomplices in war rather than agents of peace. We find it difficult to distance ourselves from our own culture so we echo its reigning opinions and mimic its practices.’
What is required in this context is a way of moving communities through the self-contained, mutually excluding ideologies of conflict to a theological, spiritual and political framework which moves them to a sense of collective need and mutual interdependence.

From a Catholic point of view, one could find a basis for such a shift in the ecclesiological aggiornamento (bringing up-to-date) of the Second Vatican Council and in its subsequent absorption into Catholic theological, catechetical and liturgical praxis. At the heart of this aggiornamento was a rinnovamento (renewal) of the Church’s understanding of itself and of its relationship to the world, captured most powerfully in a fuller exploration of the Church as a ‘Trinitarian’ reality.

The Church in this context was now more fruitfully described, not as the perfect and self-sufficient society, but as the ‘sacrament of the unity of the human race:

the sign and instrument of man’s union with God and of all men among themselves’ (Lumen Gentium #1). As such, Vatican II held that the Church exists not for itself but for the whole world. Permeated by the Holy Spirit, it lives and moves in an atmosphere of love for all humankind, the same love in which the Spirit unites the Father and Son and by which the Son in turn draws all people to Himself.

The implications of this Trinitarian ecclesiology for Catholic thought and praxis were immense. On the one hand, the profoundly historical and biblical understanding of the concept of the Church as Sacrament (mysterion) ensured that any static understanding of the Church as a self-contained and perfect society was ‘renewed’ by a new sense of responsibility for, and solidarity with, the world. This was a theme which Vatican II developed in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. At the same time, the emphasis on the Church as the ‘sacrament of unity of the human race’, gave new impetus to the search for Christian unity and the desire to engage constructively in dialogue with other communities of faith, themes taken up more fully, again in Trinitarian terms, in the Decree on Ecumenism and the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions respectively.

The atmosphere created by this new commitment to ecumenical and social engagement created by the Second Vatican Council was to prove both timely and providential for Northern Ireland. In the new year of January 1969, only four years after the Council, the People’s Democracy march from Belfast to Derry took place, ending in what was described as ‘the bloody encounter at Burntollet’ . Regarded as one of the first events of the Troubles, this Catholic civil rights march marked a significant escalation in Catholic reaction against discrimination and exclusion and, less happily, an escalation in cross-community tension and violence.
Up to this point, it is worth noting that contact between the Churches in Northern Ireland at an official level had been minimal. But now, under the influence of the renewed ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council, new initiatives were possible.

The emergence of the four main Church leaders as a working group in 1969, for example, was the first sign of official Catholic-Protestant co-operation. In succeeding years joint statements by the four leaders (at first signed separately), joint television appearances (at first addressing the chairperson rather than each other), and joint consultations between them became commonplace and, as the Troubles escalated, these unique expressions of cross-community engagement became a vital witness to cross-community tolerance and respect in an otherwise deteriorating situation.

In May 1970, after a further escalation in the Troubles and the arrival of British Troops on the streets of Northern Ireland, the work of the four Church leaders led to the establishment of the Joint [Irish Council of Churches and Roman Catholic] Group. This was a group established ‘to advise on the role of the Churches in Irish society on such matters as world poverty, employment and housing conditions, drug addiction, alcoholism etc.’ While some were disappointed that issues such as ‘Faith & Order’ and ‘causes of tension in the community’ were absent from the terms of reference , a brief excerpt from the first Report of the Group, issued in March 1972, gives some sense of the significance of the very existence of such a group in Northern Ireland terms:

In the context of the present upheaval it might appear to some that we have been concerning ourselves almost with trifles. It is nonetheless astonishing that we have met at all – in view of the disintegration around us – and we have continued to do so regularly not only in the Group itself, but also in its working parties.

This ‘disintegration around us’ was a reference to the intensity with which the Troubles had escalated in the months running up to the publication of the Joint [ICC-RC] Group Report. August 1971, for example, had seen the introduction of internment without trial, an event in which the army’s dawn swoops to arrest hundreds of suspected IRA members had left 22 people killed (including a Catholic priest) and 7,000 homeless. The impact of this deterioration on events was not lost on the broader ecumenical movement. A few months later the British Council of Churches issued an unprecedented statement calling on ‘the leaders and members of the Churches to make still greater efforts to contain passions and to take fresh courageous initiatives to establish effective co-operative ventures in which Catholics and Protestants can share together in the service of all the people of Northern Ireland.’ The early months of 1972, however, saw Bloody Sunday (when thirteen men were shot dead and seventeen wounded by the British army in Derry), the suspension of the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont and the imposition of Direct Rule from London.

During this time both the Church leaders and individual members of the clergy, often at considerable risk to themselves, continued to seek ways of giving more visible expression to their conviction that the Gospel was not served by inter-community conflict and violence. Motivated on the Catholic side by the doctrinal and pastoral impetus of Unitatis Redintegratio and Gaudium et Spes, the Irish Episcopal Conference responded positively to an initiative taken by the Irish Council of Churches in March of 1972 and issued an invitation to representatives of the Protestant Churches in Ireland to attend a joint meeting ‘at which the whole field of ecumenism might be surveyed’.

In response, at their November 1972 meeting, the ICC ‘warmly welcomed’ the invitation from the Catholic Bishops as ‘one of the most progressive moves made in Ireland’ , something unimaginable but for the impetus of the Trinitarian ecclesiology of Vatican II.

This initiative in turn established the first Ballymascanlon Meeting in 1973, later to become the Inter-Church Meeting, which continues to this day and which was described at the time as ‘an enormous step forward in inter-church relations in our country for which we would have hardly dared to hope over a decade ago.’
Attended by all of the Catholic Bishops of the island and the leaders of the other main Christian denominations, the Ballymascanlon Meeting established a series of working groups to explore ecumenical issues as well as ‘Social and Community’ problems. Among two of the more influential projects to emerge from the initiative were the establishment of the Church Leaders’ Peace Campaign in Christmas 1974 and the inter-church working party on ‘Violence in Ireland’.

In the Christmas Peace Campaign of 1974 the then Cardinal, the Church of Ireland Primate, the Presbyterian Moderator and the Methodist President, issued a common appeal for peace. They appeared together on television, placed full page advertisements in the press, met the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach (the Irish Prime Minister), and were in conference together seventeen times in the course of a few weeks. In the words of one commentator: ‘Never before had the Churches been seen to co-operate together so openly and so vigorously on a public issue. Rallies in Belfast and other towns revealed many thousands willing and anxious to follow their lead…. The Churches were seen more clearly in a reconciling role than ever before.’

Clearly, from the Catholic point of view at least, this joint witness of the Church leaders to the possibility of respect, tolerance, friendship and even forgiveness across the established religious, political and cultural divide, was the Church living out, concretely and practically, its mission as a ‘sign and instrument of Triune unity’ in Northern Ireland. It was a real and practical witness to the possibility of unity in distinction, of inclusion and interdependence, of equality and freedom, of the things at the very heart of the Christian Gospel and of the Triune God.

But this reconciling role of the Churches also became powerfully evident in a more painful and pastoral way, with the involvement of the Churches in the care of victims of the Troubles and their families. Funerals associated with the Troubles were widely reported by the media and heroic and challenging appeals for ‘forgiveness’, for ‘no retaliation’, for ‘tolerance and respect for difference’, for ‘rejection of all forms of violence’ and ‘the need for a political way forward’ were often made by clergy and, even more poignantly, by relatives of the victims themselves. The impact of such appeals, even to this day, has been incalculable, but what is certain is that that they influenced both the impetus and the direction of the subsequent search for a political solution to the Northern Ireland conflict.

As the Inter-Church Group on Faith and Politics has pointed out more recently:

One of the main reasons why violence was not much greater over the past thirty years has been the way that many people have chosen consistently to seek to cut out cycles of vengeance by calling for, and practising, non-retaliation and forgiveness. Forgiveness is a central aspect of the Christian Gospel. It has significantly penetrated Irish life, and its practice – particularly by many victims and their families – has had social and political effects.

Spiritually, socially and politically, this public fidelity to the Gospel theme of forgiveness opened up an awareness of another critical Gospel theme – the essential link between justice and reconciliation. As violence increased and its futility became ever more evident through the blood and tears of its many victims, more and more people realised that the two main communities had a simple choice: either they found ways to forgive each other and move forward together or they would continue to threaten or even ensure each others destruction.

On the one hand this required the British Government and the Unionist community to address the structural injustices that were weighed against the Catholic community. In the words of my predecessor Cardinal Cahal Daly, then Bishop of the Diocese of Down and Connor, which includes the city of Belfast, no one could ‘rightly speak of peace where no recognition or respect is given to its solid foundations: namely sincerity, justice and love in relations between States, and, within the limits of each nation in the relations of citizens with each other.’ ‘In the concrete situation of Northern Ireland,’ he went on to say, ‘I am convinced that justice between the two historic communities requires that representatives of the minority community be given proportionate but real access to the level where political decisions are taken which determine the distribution of power and wealth and opportunity, the allocation of industries, resources and jobs.’

What was also becoming evident, however, was that for peace to be achieved, justice also required reconciliation, the restoration of relationships that had been broken or held at bay by the fear-threat relationship which had dominated the history of the two religious, political and cultural traditions on the island.

Reconciliation in this context meant going beyond the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ of the conflict – beyond the vicious circle of action and reaction – to create new and creative relationships with the other. It meant going beyond identities of exclusion to create identities based on mutual recognition and need. It meant wanting to participate with the other, of knowing that agreement with the other was necessary for the security of my own identity and for the creation of a new and agreed future.


For the purpose of our theme it is important to note here that it was the Church leaders of this time who were being prophetic in their actions and creative in their language. Political leadership remained locked within traditional cultural and religious boundaries. Church leaders on the other hand, and many of the clergy in the four main denominations, were moving out to build bridges between local communities, often in situations of great danger to themselves and in some cases amidst opposition from within their congregations. Numerous peace marches, meetings and movements sprung up at this time which owed their origin, directly or indirectly, to Church inspiration and support. Groups such as the Corrymeela Community, the Cornerstone Community, the Columbanus Community, Friends of the Way, the South Down Clergy Fellowship, the Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship, the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship, the Assisi Fellowship, Protestant and Catholic Encounter, People Together, the Servite Priory Initiative, the Faith and Politics Group, the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation, the Churches Initiatives Group, Youthlink, and a host of children’s joint holiday schemes, to name just a few, all had their origins in and developed from specific Christian and Church-based initiatives at or around this time.

The ultimate impact of these movements and groups on subsequent events in Northern Ireland is incalculable. They were places of encounter and dialogue in which the tough issues of the day were discussed frankly and sometimes painfully, but nonetheless within the restraining boundaries of Christian forgiveness, tolerance and respect. It is testimony to the perseverance and foresight of these various Church based initiatives that many of the concepts and values which surfaced through their reflection and praxis were to emerge, some twenty years later, in the vocabulary and principles which would underpin the Good Friday Agreement. Only this time, more secular and political language would be used.

A brief survey of the documents produced by the Inter-Church meeting, the statements of the four Church leaders and the sermons of the Catholic and Protestant clergy who were involved in courageous initiatives at that time, reveals something of the themes which would later dominate the search for peace:

* The need for dialogue.
* The need for mutual respect, for parity of esteem and for due recognition of the rights and entitlements of the other. (To do unto others as you would have them do unto you).
* The need for mutual liberation from conflict, to be convinced that there is no outright victory available to any side, that there is no absolute claim to historical or moral righteousness and no future without the other.
* The need to develop a Christian empathy, the habit of seeing things from the perspective of the other, of recognising the pain and suffering of the other rather than just our own, and to understand the fears that we generate for the other community.
* The need for structural justice as the basis for stability and agreement, including the need to review the processes of criminal justice, policing, civil administration and political power-sharing.
* The need to heal the past and agree a future based on consent, to draw a line under the complex moral history of the past by constructing a new and binding agreement.
* The need to compromise on our deeply held convictions, to find new ways of seeing the other and the conflict, (and perhaps most critical of all);
* The need to build up trust in each other by making practical gestures which by themselves reduce fear and encourage trust.

From a Catholic point of view, the shift to this kind of terminology had emerged as the indirect result of the renewed Trinitarian ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council. At the heart of this Trinitarian, relational model of the Church was a theological conviction that we are made in the image of God and that, if God is three Persons whose relationships are the most important truth that has been revealed to us about them, then we must also understand ourselves primarily in terms of the dynamics of these relationships.

For the Christian, this means that any expression of the Kingdom in history, in the form of an ecclesial identity, cannot involve any form of self-sufficiency or exclusion, other than that which is essential to the integrity of one’s own identity. By its very Trinitarian and historical nature, ‘being in the Church’ means living with, learning from and even celebrating all forms of human diversity from a confidence in one’s own religious, cultural or political particularity.

In his work After the Ceasefires, Brian Lennon, a Jesuit Priest in the Co. Armagh town of Portadown, the town associated with the contentious Orange March at the Church of Ireland Parish of Drumcree, unpacks the practical implications of this doctrine of the Trinity for the two communities in Northern Ireland:
The Christian community will therefore see diversity not as a threat, but as an opportunity to look for the mystery that exists in other communities, to search for God not only in the familiar, but also in what is different. The doctrine of the Trinity is a fundamental challenge to Irish and British Christians. If we cannot build community with each other, then we cannot be in community with God.

This means maintaining what Mirsoslav Volf has described as ‘porous boundaries’ between distance and belonging. The insight of the Trinitarian model of human relationships is that there is a viable and legitimate boundary between distance and belonging, between particularity and diversity, between unity and distinction.

We need distance and we need belonging. Particular identities and allegiances offer us homes in which we can belong; a sense of pride; a space where we are among our own; a place of nourishment and security. In this sense we cannot live without boundaries and differences – even if we know that boundaries and differences can be dangerous. What is required, however, is that these boundaries are porous, that they are sufficiently accessible and unthreatening, that the other can be welcomed in and embraced, if this is their desire, without dissolution of their particularity. Here there is respect for difference and diversity, for particularity and personal identity.

It is only with this attitude of careful balance between distance and belonging that we can avoid the potentially destructive relationship between faith and identity which manifests itself in the pernicious evil of ‘sectarianism’. One of the constant challenges to Churches and others in any society where religion plays a part in political identity is to guard against and seek to confront head-on the influence of sectarianism. At its roots, it is a totally distorted alignment between religious identity and a host of unrelated but very powerful influences on human identity such as superiority, historical memory, the need to be accepted by the group, the need to be on the winning side, the need to exercise power over others. All of this frequently manifests itself in people who often have little or no contact with the Churches in their given denomination.

In this regard it is worth highlighting the work of three organisations which have played a leading role, in recent years, in assisting the Churches and society in Northern Ireland to face up to this particularly insidious challenge. They are now emerging as centres of international significance in peace and peace-making, with a particular expertise in the areas of sectarianism and reconciliation.

The first is Corrymeela, which when translated means ‘the hill of harmony’. No Irish name is more widely known in ecumenical circles, inside or outside Ireland.

It is regarded as pioneering since its inception. Founded in 1965, it set the tone and provided the vision for much of the inter-church work which was to follow in Ireland. As one Irish author explains, ‘It is our Taize; Reformed/Presbyterian in the person of its founder, Rev Dr. Ray Davey, inter-denominational as well as international in its outreach, but different from Taize in being a dispersed rather than a residential community, a dispersed community which originally was mostly if not entirely Protestant but is now half Protestant and half Catholic.’ It continues to this day as a sign and symbol that Catholics and Protestants can share together in common witness to and ministry of reconciliation.

The second is the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation, founded in 1974. Inspired by and affiliated to the Corrymeela community, the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation is nestled in the Wicklow Hills just outside Dublin. Not unlike your own initiative here in St. Ethelburga’s, Glencree works to discover and promote the conditions for a just and peaceful society in Ireland by providing opportunities for dialogue and encounter among groups of young people who come from schools north and south, among political and religious representatives from across the island and through the provision of training in mediation, peace-making and the respectful use of natural resources.

The third is the Irish School of Ecumenics and its various outreach projects, most notably its Moving Beyond Sectarianism Project; its Transforming Sectarianism Project and, more recently its Partners in Transformation Project. Each of these has sought, through academic research and analysis on the one hand, and extensive dialogue and engagement with individuals, Churches and political parties on the other, to analyse the sources of and frame a comprehensive response to the issue of sectarianism in Irish society. In its latest initiative, the Partners in Transformation Project, aims to ‘enhance, nurture, and support the capacity of churches and faith communities in their calling to be peace-builders and agents of transformation’ by ‘generating new agendas and strategies for peace-building at an executive level that can authorise, support and ultimately sustain grassroots activity.’ This project, which is scheduled to run for another three years, is targeted towards “church leaders” by which is meant:

executive and middle range leaders of all churches and faith communities willing to participate; and local leaders: ministers, elders, members of parish councils, leader’s meetings, synods, vestries and lay leaders who have an active or influential role in their denomination at local or regional level.’

During the last year, for example, the Partners in Transformation Project facilitated the main Churches in framing their response to the UK Government’s discussion paper entitled ‘A Shared Future: A Consultation on Improving Relations in Northern Ireland’. In it, the Catholic Bishops, were able to restate our conviction that ‘the only future available to the people of Northern Ireland is one which is shared.’

It was also in the context of this joint discussion between the Churches that we were able to reflect on and identify those obstacles which still remain in our society in terms of moving towards a shared future. Chief among those obstacles, it emerged, was the ongoing absence of trust.


It seems that, in spite of the great progress of recent years, it was the issue of building trust between the two communities that was to prove the most critical and the most difficult to secure as the effort to sustain the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement evolved. People often say that the first victim of war is the truth.

In my experience, the first victim of violence or of injustice, is trust. It is no coincidence that Senator George Mitchell was able to record in one of his first Reports on the progress of the Good Friday Agreement that ‘Common to many of our meetings were arguments, steeped in history, as to why the other cannot be trusted. As a consequence, even well-intentioned acts were often viewed with suspicion and hostility.’

Northern Ireland is a society pervaded with distrust. The faltering, stop-start pattern of the peace process since the signing of the Agreement in 1998, has its roots in this inherent capacity to distrust. Yet trust is a necessary precondition for everything else: for a peaceful sharing of space together, for sharing power and responsibility, for reconciliation. As long as we distrust each other we live defensive lives and define our identity in exclusive and excluding ways. What we are discovering more and more in Northern Ireland, is that for reconciliation to be possible, and for lasting peace to take hold, people must do all that is within their power to remove fear and to build trust.

And here again I suggest, it is the vocabulary of faith which has something important to offer in terms of moving our community beyond the debilitating cycle of fear and distrust, which lies at the heart of our current impasse. It is found in the specifically Christian concept of supererogation – the duty to go the extra mile, to do more than is reasonable or justified in our own terms, for the sake of the common or greater good.

For Catholics and Nationalists, this going the extra mile to create trust would mean vigorously challenging any ambivalence that continues to exist in our own community about the presence or actions of non-democratic and totally unaccountable armed groups in our own community. In my work as Archbishop, I meet more and more Catholics who are concerned about the sense of control being exerted by powerful individuals or paramilitary groups in their local areas, sometimes subtly, sometimes violently.

The Catholic community cannot seek a more just, free and equal society and at the same time be patient with the forces in our own community which contradict these principles. We cannot swap old forms of captivity and oppression for new ones. The referenda by the Irish people, on both sides of the border, on the Good Friday Agreement, was an act of self-determination by the people of Ireland. Then they declared clearly and unequivocally that there is no further need of violence to resolve or pursue the question of a United Ireland, or indeed to maintain the Union. I believe it is now time to face up to the full implications of that act of self-determination.

No doubt some people will say that such gestures are treated with contempt by those for whom they are intended to encourage trust. But this is to miss the point. The Catholic community should remove itself totally from the legacy of violence as an expression of our own self-confidence, confidence in our own ability to pursue issues through political means, to construct a new Ireland in a peaceful and constructive manner through discussion, dialogue and debate.

Going the extra mile for the Catholic community would also mean moving beyond the many historic and legitimate reasons they have for distrusting the police to taking shared responsibility for the administration of law and order and continuing to ensure its reform. The Catholic Church was very clear about the need to reform the police when the issue was subjected to independent and international scrutiny. We share some of the disappointment about the manner in which this matter was handled by the British Government. This in itself contributed to a lack of trust, as has the failure to address sufficiently the deep distrust that continues to exist in relation to the activities of Special Branch and British Military Intelligence. But the fact remains that many nationalist areas are crying out for effective policing in Northern Ireland and this cannot be provided until support from the Catholic community has been maximised. For this reason it is vital that enough is done to maximise the confidence of the Catholic community in the new beginning to policing which has already begun, but also the participation of the Catholic community, to the maximum extent possible in that ongoing process of reform from within and with others, envisaged by the Patten Recommendations.

Going the extra mile for Catholics and Nationalists would also mean assuming some responsibility for creating greater confidence in the Protestant community about the future of their religious, cultural and political identity.

For Protestants and Unionists, on the other hand, going the extra mile would mean accepting the full implications of the principles enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement; the legitimacy of the nationalist aspiration to a united Ireland; the presence of people with an Irish identity in Northern Ireland and the full implications of this identity in terms of the need for credible north-south institutions. It would mean accepting the legacy of violence and threat of violence on the part of the unionist community which led to the foundation of the Northern Ireland State and its continued existence. It would mean recognising the right to parity of esteem for the Nationalist community, including the right to expressions and celebration of Nationalist identity. In particular, it would mean addressing any ambivalence in the Unionist community in relation to loyalist violence. In my experience, it is more than just a perception that Unionist leaders, British politicians and the British media do not treat the existence of the loyalist paramilitaries with the same vigour and determination as that of republican paramilitaries. This not only leads to further resentment and distrust of unionists and of the British State on the part of Catholics (to whom their violence is directed), it also reinforces any ambivalence which nationalists might have to the presence of republican paramilitaries in their community as a line of final defence.

Other important sources of distrust in this regard include the endless allegations of collusion between the security services in Britain, the security forces in Northern Ireland and loyalist paramilitaries listed in, among other places, the Stephen’s Inquiry. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of these allegations on the confidence of the Catholic community in the impartiality of the British Government generally and in the new beginning to policing in particular. This is an area for which only the British Government can take responsibility. The failure to honour the commitments given in relation to the Cory Collusion Inquiry Reports
and the call for a Public Inquiry into the murder of Mr Pat Finucane, are not only unacceptable, they have served to compound the sense of suspicion which exists about the extent of collusion, and about the continued influence of these same elements of the security services right into the present. The reform of Special Branch within the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the recognition of the disproportionate presence of British Army personnel and structures within Nationalist areas, provides the British Government with ample opportunity to make practical gestures which could inspire further momentum and trust.

In terms of building an atmosphere of trust and confidence, the value of creating dynamics of blame and counter-blame is also deeply questionable. Such dynamics contribute nothing to the creation of understanding. Indeed, it is possible to argue that they further undermine it by rehearsing well established obstacles to progress rather than developing creative solutions to the conflict. Individuals or organisations which contribute to the blame game rarely contribute anything new. Locking ourselves into cycles of blame and counter-blame do not bring solutions any closer. In the words of the German philosopher Hannah Arendt, the primary requirements for people to live together are ‘their willingness to enter into promises and agreements and to keep them; and their willingness to set aside the past – its broken promises and agreements, its enmity and its vicious circles of action and reaction – and to start anew.’ This is a time to start anew, not to recriminate about what we already know.


I appreciate that these are challenging and very practical comments. But trust itself can only be created through concrete actions which create confidence in the other, from the words we use to the political decisions we take. This is why I have felt it necessary to outline these gestures of trust in such practical terms. The basic principles of the resolution of this historic conflict have not changed. What is required now is to face the most challenging aspects of what has already been agreed and to go the extra mile – preferably in the shoes of the other.

Immense progress has been made in recent years and I personally remain very confident that this progress can be consolidated in the coming months by people doing all in their power to go the extra mile, to take that extra step into the unimaginable gesture or the unthinkable shift of position which can create deeper and more enduring trust. If we can resolve the remaining issues, then the future for the whole of our society in Northern Ireland will be brighter and more certain than heretofore.

Some of the creative proposals that are emerging from the political parties at this stage are encouraging and deserve careful and constructive consideration.

We should not let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

In conclusion, I notice that it was out of the fragments of the old east window of this Church, that people of generosity and heroic faith were able to construct the striking depiction of St. Ethelburga gathering up broken fragments in the window which now replaces it. It is a symbol, in your own words, of the brokenness of the past and of the reconciling mission of the Church in the future. I hope that what I have said to you this evening has demonstrated in some small way that people like St. Ethelburga, who find the truth about their human identity in their religious faith, can play a powerful role in gathering up the fragments of conflict and division. The brokenness of Northern Ireland’s past is a powerful testimony to the dangers of an uncritical relationship between faith and identity based on themes of superiority, exclusion and distrust. But Northern Ireland’s present is testimony to the healing, restoring power of those who believe to bring about a new approach to conflict rooted in the values of forgiveness, reconciliation and justice. The key to which of these prevails lies in the religious language we choose to emphasize within our own tradition at any given time. In this regard, the renewed emphasis on the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, such a dominant theme in the life of St. Patrick, must be a source of hope and confidence for all those who see the relationship between unity in diversity as a critical issue for the future of the world, indeed of this very society. This most fundamental conviction of the Christian tradition provides the ultimate motive and model for living constructively with difference. It enables us to see difference as an opportunity for mutual enrichment rather than an obstacle. It calls Christians to a sense of mutuality and inter-dependence, themes which are becoming increasingly important in our increasingly diverse, yet interdependent world.
In the end, the relationship between faith and identity is always a struggle between the language of dominance, exclusion and superiority and the language of mutual liberation, interdependence and acts of trust. The Anglican Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf captures this choice in the powerful metaphor of exclusion and embrace.

Let me end with his words:

There can be no justice, no resolution to conflict, without the will to embrace…
My point is simple: to create justice you must, [like the persons of the Trinity] make space in yourself for the other, in order to make that space, you need to want to embrace the other. If you insist that others do not belong to you and you to them, or that you will have your justice and they will have theirs; your justices will clash and there will be no peace between you. The key to peace, therefore, is the will to embrace.

Thank you.
+Seán Brady
Archbishop of Armagh and
Primate of All Ireland
5th May 2004