Over 50 years, the work of peace and reconciliation in counteracting the ugly and protracted outbreak of violence has been facilitated by patient outreach and genuine effort at mutual understanding engaged in by Christians of different backgrounds. This has often involved painful and self-critical examination of the causes of conflict, where conflict itself has provided new problems and few answers.
A friend and regular correspondent for 40 years died recently in Belfast aged 97. Roderick (Roddy) Evans was a medical doctor, who remained fit well into his 90s. He qualified in Dublin, practised abroad in challenging climates, and resided in Belfast from around 1970.
He and some close friends were involved in a post-war Anglican movement known as Moral Re-Armament, and in the midst of the Troubles engaged in a cross-community Bible discussion group in Clonard Monastery under the guidance of Fr Christopher McCarthy CSsR. A Catholic member of that group Alec McRitchie has written some appreciations of Roddy Evans since his passing.
One of the group, Dr George Dallas, a Presbyterian who identified with the tradition going back to Dr William Drennan and constitutionally-minded United Irishmen, gave evidence to the New Ireland Forum. As a cross-community group, they talked to different organisations and governments in Belfast, Dublin, London and Washington. Their work found high-level support from John Austin Baker, Bishop of Salisbury. He first used the phrase ‘the legacy of history’, which, as something to be overcome, opens the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 between John Major and Albert Reynolds, which proved a catalyst for the subsequent IRA and loyalist ceasefires.
Roddy Evans published booklets reflecting the spirit of group discussions, Where I Sensed the Breath of God: A footnote in Anglo-Irish history in 2002, and earlier The second conversion of Dr George Dallas. What was unusual was the willingness to bring to the table a strong sense of responsibility felt by him to be due from the Protestant and the British side for the northern conflict.
Neither unionists nor the British government will entertain any doubts about the wisdom of establishing Northern Ireland”
All of us can critique, if we try, opportunities missed and wrong turns taken in our history. Generally speaking, we cannot go back and choose again. We can only go forward from where we are now.
In the 44 years from the first Home Government meeting in 1870 until the outbreak of war in 1914, a collective Irish position should have been found. The attempt to block any sort of self-government within the Union was deeply misguided. The political and economic costs of partition, most of all for northern nationalists, were high. World War I came and opened up new possibilities, including complete independence for most of Ireland, since partition seemed to be virtually a done deal.
Partition could not be made into something that separated two peoples. Northern Ireland deprived a third of the population of the right to participate in an independent Ireland (unless they were prepared to move). The border was always an anomaly, and could be the biggest stumbling block to a Brexit deal, if last year’s agreed protocol is repudiated. Treated as an opportunity, the protocol gives Northern Ireland the unique advantage of simultaneous access to the British market, the all-island economy and the EU single market.
Worldwide, there is a new critical look at the legacy of imperialism. On present form, neither unionists nor the British government will entertain any doubts about the wisdom of establishing Northern Ireland 100 years ago. British ministers talk glibly about the integrity of the United Kingdom. What about the integrity of Ireland? They talk about the four nations, never specifying what the fourth nation is, as Northern Ireland is not one.
Yet, if the nationalist goal is, as John Hume taught, to unite people not just territory, while only lip-service is paid to respecting the unionist tradition, what does it do to the trust needed to build unity, if everything about Northern Ireland is rejected out of hand?
The biblical comparison that comes to mind is the Persian King Belshazzar’s feast”
The Good Friday Agreement has given everyone a chance to some extent to move on. A graphic example of this is provided in the recently published memoir by former President Mary McAleese, who also had much involvement with the Clonard mission. The book is dedicated to the late Fr Alec Reid. The most vivid and arresting part is three chapters on her family’s failing struggle to continue living in 1970-72 in a mixed community in Ardoyne, where Catholics were a minority, at the height of the Troubles, where death came very close.
There was a concerted attempt to prevent her, with her background, from becoming President of Ireland, which thankfully did not succeed. She was undoubtedly the right person for the era of the peace process, from the opening of the Messines Tower with the British and Belgian monarchs in 1998 to being host to Queen Elizabeth in 2011. Whether readers agree with her or not, she gives fascinating accounts of working with the Church and of disagreements.
Humility is a Christian virtue, often conspicuously absent from the actions of public figures. In our day and other days, there are many examples of hubris being humbled. After all he had supposedly done for God, Louis XIV, le grand monarque, had three generations of his descendants, bar two, carried off by disease. Impenitence can often be worse than the fault itself.
Supreme Court judges are in the news lately. Southern evangelicals have compared President Trump to King Cyrus of Persia, who released the Jews from captivity in Babylon.
The Presidential debate with mockery of mask-wearing was followed by audience celebration on the White House lawn of the nomination of a US Supreme Court judge, of whom there are great hopes in the US pro-life movement, but then by a positive diagnosis of Covid-19 amongst several present, including the President and his wife. The biblical comparison that comes to mind is the Persian King Belshazzar’s feast. But all thoughtful people wish for their full recovery, so that he and Joe Biden can face the judgment of the American people.