If the ecumenical service to mark the centenary of partition wasn’t political to begin with, it certainly is now. The decision by President Michael D. Higgins to refuse to participate in the ceremony has thrust what was to be a modest event centre-stage.
It’s still not entirely clear why Mr Higgins felt so uncomfortable about the event. Despite his earlier insistence, he has now conceded that the letter inviting him did not refer to him as the “President of the Republic of Ireland” but quite correctly as the “President of Ireland”.
At the outset, it is important to note that the event was not billed as a celebration but merely a service to mark 100 years since the partition of the island and the creation of the northern state.
Archbishop Eamon Martin – one of the organisers – grew up alongside the border and leads a diocese that is split in two by the border. He is not unaware of the impact of partition historically and now.
The creation of the northern state was catastrophic from day one for northern Catholics. They learned about their new status as second-class citizens almost immediately as thousands were forced out of their homes and many others were dismissed from their jobs.
It was the relentless discrimination against Catholics – an issue little opined about in the then Free State at the time – that led to the emergency of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) with modest demands around voting, housing and education.
The Stormont administration – famously described by Prime Minister James Craig as a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people – set its face against equal rights for Catholics.
Just 50 years ago in 1971, state-sponsored Protestant mobs intensified their attacks on the Catholic community in the north forcing many thousands to flee to makeshift refugee camps just south of the border. Religious houses all across the Republic provided refuge from what could only be described as a process of ethnic cleansing only brought to an end when the authorities in London imposed direct rule and deployed members of the British Army to protect Catholic areas of the region from further violence.
This is part of the painful and catastrophic story of partition. Northern Ireland was a state borne out of sectarianism and supremacy – and this is something that everyone acknowledges is worth recalling.
A Christian service focused on reconciliation and ethical remembering seemed to me the perfect space in which to acknowledge the fact of the creation of the northern state as well as the pain this caused. I think the Church leaders were courageous in organising the ecumenical service, as Church leaders showed great wisdom all during the civil conflict in the North reaching across the sectarian divide. We know about people like Fr Alec Reid and Revd Harold Good, though I suspect that we will never know the full story of the many Churchmen who convinced paramilitaries that peace was in everyone’s interest.
Ireland – north and south – must come to terms with painful episodes in our history. We must be a peoples and a nation at peace with ourselves and at peace with our past. The great genius of the – admittedly imperfect – Good Friday Agreement is the fact that it creates the space for parity of esteem. British identity and Irish identity sit side-by-side with every shade in between. No identity is exaggerated at the expense of another.
From my perspective as a Catholic born and raised in the North fully conscious of the suffering of my community, I think it is regrettable that in 2021 a simple religious ceremony of Christians gathering together to acknowledge a reality is controversial.