A day of grace and reconciliation

A day of grace and reconciliation Archbishop Eamon Martin speaks with Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney, far left, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson following a service to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland in Armagh on October 21 while Government Chief Whip Jack Chambers looks on. Photo: Chai Brady.

The event marking partition was always going to be a highwire act from a Catholic point of view, but history will remember the ceremony well, writes Michael Kelly

Leaders of the country’s Christian traditions have vowed to face “difficult truth” and work closer together to ensure that the fragile peace process in the North leaves a lasting legacy of reconciliation.

The leaders gathered in Armagh – the country’s ecclesiastical capital where in the Fifth Century St Patrick first presided over the Church – for what they described as a service of reflection and hope. It was often poignant, and certainly not marked by any sense of celebration – however critics tried to characterise it.


Marking partition and the creation of the northern state in any way had the recipe to be controversial. It was something experienced in very different ways: the birth of a country for the region’s Protestant majority, a catastrophe for the Catholic minority.

Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin set the tone: “When I look back on what happened on this island in 1921, like many others in my community and tradition, I do so with a deep sense of loss; and also sadness.

“For the past 100 years partition has polarised people on this island. It has institutionalised difference, and it remains a symbol of cultural, political and religious division between our communities,” he said.

Dr Martin was joined at the ceremony in St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral by leaders of the other Christian traditions on the island including the Church of Ireland, Methodist, Presbyterian and the Irish Council of Churches.


The ceremony became controversial after President Michael D. Higgins declined an invitation insisting that the event had become political – a claim rejected by the Church leaders. However, the opinion of many nationalist leaders hardened and the intentions of the Churchmen was lost in the maelstrom.

The 300 guests included Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Archbishop Martin said: “Today I reflect as a Church leader on the last 100 years. I have to face the difficult truth that perhaps we in the Churches could have done more to deepen our understanding of each other and to bring healing and peace to our divided and wounded communities,” he said.

In a ceremony marked by hope, the congregation heard pleas from young people born after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement who have only known peace not to abandon the work of reconciliation.

Students from Catholic, Protestant and integrated schools spoke of the hopes they have for a better life.

Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh John McDowell took up the theme of the Churches working for reconciliation. “I am sorry that as disciples of Jesus Christ, we didn’t do more to become peacemakers, or at least to speak peace into the situation. Too often we allowed the attitudes around us to shape our faith, rather than the other way around.

“That’s certainly what I mean when I say we have too often been captive Churches,” he said.

The Presbyterian Moderator Dr David Bruce said he had “mixed feelings” looking back over the last 100 year. “Northern Ireland is my home too, and I love it. But I lament the physical and emotional pain which has been caused over this last century to so many people by violence and the words which lead to violence.

“Sadly such things remain, and not only on this island. In hope, we long for a day when, as the Apostle John describes it, God will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death, or mourning, or crying or pain,” Dr Bruce said.


Delivering the sermon, the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland Dr Sahr Yambasu used the example of St Patrick as a model of reconciliation.

He recalled how St Patrick had been brought to Ireland and enslaved as an act of violence.

“Patrick had every reason to hate the Irish and seek for vengeance. But he didn’t. Instead, he forgave and was forgiven. Consequently, the history of this place could be summarised in one word: grace – unmerited concern for the good of the other.

“For us Christians, grace is a gift. That gift is a person. Jesus Christ is his name. He is the gift of God to St Patrick. It is that gift that made him return to Ireland not to hold the past against the people of Ireland, but to hold before them the possibility of a mutually enhanced future: a future devoid of recriminations and unjust relationships; and a future imbued with and infused by grace,” he said.

Dr Yambasu insisted that: “reconciliation refuses to see people through any other lens other than how God sees them – as made in his image”.

Dr Ivan Patterson, President of the Irish Council of Churches said that “while it is important that we continue to show leadership to our young people by coming together as Church leaders, we recognise that our failure, even to talk well together about the ways in which the past continues to affect us all, hampers them in addressing that unfinished work of peace so important for the future.

“We have heard their voices clearly and powerfully today, we need to learn from their example. They are a generation who want to build peace, a generation who respect and care for this planet in solidarity with the poorest and most vulnerable here and around the world.

“As a disciple of Jesus with my brothers and sisters I commit myself to supporting that generation, even where that means that we must sacrifice some things which were important in the past for the sake of those generations who are to come,” he said.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II had been due to participate in Thursday’s service. However, on the eve of the event a communique from Buckingham Palace said that the 95-year-old monarch had reluctantly accepted medical advice to rest rather than travel for the event.