Pastoring in troubled times

Lord Robin Eames tells Martin O’Brien about his hopes for the future of democracy in Northern Ireland

Pastor, peacemaker, crossbench member of the House of Lords, one-time confidant of Prime Ministers and Taoisigh, Robin Henry Alexander Eames, OM, retired Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland, has been widely respected as an ecclesiastical titan in Ireland and within the worldwide Anglican Communion over several decades straddling much of the Troubles and the early years of the current century.

The OM signifies Lord Eames’s membership of the exclusive Order of Merit. It is restricted to 24 distinguished persons and is the personal gift of the British monarch, a rare honour he holds in addition to numerous other distinctions including no fewer than nine honorary degrees and the Tipperary International Peace Award.

He is also well-known as co-chairman (with former Derry priest Denis Bradley) of the Consultative Group on the Past whose recommendations of 2009 may have gathered dust but are expected to form the architecture of whatever agreement may be reached now that the Assembly election is out of the way. 

However, no Google search shines any light on the biblical passages that have particularly influenced Robin Eames in the course of his 79 years and as the Gospel accounts of Holy Week and the Resurrection are so important here, it was fitting that we should meet in the home he shares with his wife, Lady Christine, in Hillsborough, Co. Down during this Easter season. 

To begin, I reminded Bishop Eames that I distinctly recalled him telling the BBC shortly after the Good Friday Agreement of 18 years ago that “it was no coincidence that the Agreement was reached on Good Friday”.

He paused and it was evident it was an observation he had not been asked to respond to before.   

“I have to be honest with you, I don’t think I’ve ever said this before, but time and time again, the events of Holy Week, as recounted in the four Gospels, have been things that have appealed to my thinking and prompted my thinking.

“I have always found, time and time again in my own meditations, something different, some [new] line of thought in the Gospel accounts of Holy Week. And in a sense that part of the Gospel has been part and parcel of my thinking for as long as I can remember.

“Because the suffering and surrender of Holy Week, the mystery of it, the trial and the Calvary story, I don’t think there is any other part of the New Testament that has so prompted thinking in my life than that.”


Lord Eames says that these Gospel passages have been of enormous help to him as he ministered to numerous victims of the Troubles.

“Because of this prompting from the Holy Week Gospel accounts I could, in a sense theologically-wise, align myself with the victimhood, the suffering, the failure, the misery, the darkness of it all. 

“That is why I have always tried to preach, to teach, to speak of the Resurrection hope and that is why I saw the Good Friday Agreement and things that have flowed from it all as evidence of the hand of God in the affairs of people of this province, the people that I have worked with.”

Robin Eames, born in Belfast, the son of Rev. William Eames, a Methodist minister who later joined the Church of Ireland, is a unionist by background and conviction.

So I wondered if he was not tempted as a young man deeply interested in politics to follow in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather, Robert Alexander, a Unionist MP at Stormont and High Sherriff of Belfast whose picture with King George VI rests proudly in his drawing room alongside one of him receiving the Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth II. 

“Yes politics was in the family, I was interested in it but there was a much stronger tendency to follow.” 

This resulted in him (already with a PhD in law and history from Queen’s) giving up a career as an academic lawyer in QUB and responding to the call to the Anglican priesthood.

It is one of the ‘ifs’ of history but had the bright young law lecturer at Queen’s overlooked the calling to the Church and taken to politics he would most likely have become a Cabinet minister or higher at Stormont. 

How does he think he might have responded to Catholic demands for justice articulated so powerfully by the civil rights movement during the later years of the premiership of Captain Terence O’Neill?


“I would hope, with hindsight, I would have been one who would have asked questions such as why is there discontentment? Why is there a feeling of alienation? Why is there a feeling of being downtrodden? I hope I would have been the sort of person who would have asked those questions and demanded answers.”

But under the influence of Canon Edgar Turner, the then dean of residence at Queen’s, who died just days before this interview, Robin responded to the call to the priesthood and subsequently became a rector in Belfast, and in 1975, at just 38, was elected the youngest bishop in the Church of Ireland – of Derry & Raphoe – where he forged “a very close friendship” with Bishop Edward Daly.

Later he was appointed Bishop of Down and Dromore and finally Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland from 1986 until 2006. 

Bishop Eames speaks with obvious warmth of his friendships with Bishop Edward Daly and his fellow Primates during his long period in Armagh.

Although he and Tomás Ó Fiaich came from diametrically opposed political backgrounds   they got on extremely well and “we often talked long into the wee small hours reasoning things out”. 

“One day [in 1990] I said to him, ‘Tomás, you are looking awfully tired, are you overdoing it?’ And Tomás said ‘Ah I feel very tired, but I’ll be alright next week, I’m going on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. And I never saw him again. So that was the kind of friendship we had.”

Deep friendship? “Oh, very.”

He recalls himself and Cardinal Daly visiting the H Blocks together, first the cardinal would visit the republicans and he the loyalists and then they would switch and he would meet the republicans and Dr Daly the loyalists. 

Bishop Eames makes a point of “thanking God” for “the huge progress” that has been made in ecumenical relations since he was ordained in 1963 when the issue of “mixed marriages” and the baptisms of children from such unions were “such a bugbear”.

“All those things have been reasoned out and are not the impediment they used to be.”

In 1995, Prime Minister John Major recognised his contribution to the peace process and his discreet behind-the-scenes assistance with the drafting of the Downing Street Declaration and the bringing about of the loyalist ceasefires by recommending his appointment to the Lords. 

He says that he “drew great strength” for his work for reconciliation during the Albert Reynolds/John Major era from his experience as a trouble-shooter in the Anglican Communion, wrestling with such issues as women bishops (and later homosexuality).

The most personally painful period of all during Dr Eames’s 53 years as a minister was the Drumcree crisis between 1995 and 2001 which in the late nineties brought much of Northern Ireland to a standstill each July resulting in at least six deaths, multiple injuries to civilians and police and a sharp rise in community tension.

The dispute centred on the Orange Order’s insistence on marching annually along their traditional route through a Catholic area along the Garvaghy Road in Portadown after a service at Drumcree Church of Ireland. 

Twenty years on, the dispute is still unresolved and Orangemen still conduct a symbolic protest each Sunday against the determination of the Parades Commission. 

In his 1999 presidential address to the Church of Ireland General Synod, Archbishop Eames described Drumcree as “my own personal agony and indeed torment” and “a cameo of the Northern Ireland situation. It represents the depths of uncertainty and fear which are so prevalent in the community”.

Looking back, he says he sometimes asks himself if there was anything he could have done differently but he defends his decision not to close the church at Drumcree – demanded by some southern CofI figures including Bishop John Neill – pointing out that this would have flown in the face of the advice of the Secretary of State and the Chief Constable who warned it would make matters worse, as well as legal advice.


“Drumcree was about the birth of a new confidence by the nationalist community that their voice could be heard in protest against the Garvaghy Road march and on the other side a recognition that the traditional route and the traditional paraphernalia no longer could go unquestioned. That is why I coined the phrase ‘Drumcree is a cameo of Northern Ireland’.”

In January 2009, after 18 months of deliberation during which they received evidence from nearly 150 organisations or individuals, Eames and Bradley and their colleagues on the Consultative Group on the Past published their report.

Their report proposed an Independent Legacy Commission to deal with the legacy of the past “by combining processes of reconciliation, justice, and information recovery”.

It has essentially gathered dust ever since but its essentials were effectively endorsed by US diplomat Richard Haass in his report which also failed to secure the agreement of all the Northern parties at the end of 2013.

Asked to describe his feelings about the non-implementation of Eames-Bradley after nearly seven and a half years Lord Eames replies: “One of disappointment but yet I believe with hindsight it [our report] was before its time. The people who drew up that report, with their backgrounds from the GAA to unionism had a pilgrimage, a journey before they were able to publish it. 

“They learned from each other, they experienced each other, they experienced the experiences of each other and yet we were able to agree on the report. Now if Northern Ireland society and political society had been able to do the same journey it could have been accepted.”

Bishop Eames points out that “the architecture of Eames-Bradley is now beginning to be recognised” by the parties having been accepted more than two years ago by Richard Haass, “and if the architecture was wrong the dust would be twice as thick”.

Asked if he thinks that the political parties will agree on legacy/the past now that the Assembly elections are out of the way he is surprisingly upbeat: “Yes. I am reasonably certain that they [the parties] are closer to agreement on the legacy question than has been made public.

“I cannot and do not know what the detail will be but I have reason to believe that when the dust settles after the election we are going to see some broad agreement on how to deal with the legacy issue.”

Asked what he had learned most from the Eames-Bradley process, Dr Eames spoke of “the nature of victimhood, the individuality of victimhood and the danger that would come when you group victims under headings”.

The latter comment underlines his adherence to his group’s finding that “highly politicised debate about the definition of a victim and the hierarchy of victims is both fruitless and self-defeating”.

Eames-Bradley had accepted the definition of “victim and survivor” laid out in the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 which essentially said that anyone who had been seriously affected by a conflict-related incident is a victim/survivor. 


For Bishop Eames, the pastor who ministered to countless families whose lives were devastated by the murder of a loved one and who conducted numerous funeral services, the issue of dealing with the past will never be an abstract thing. 

And by coincidence, his sister Dr Marion Gibson, based in Belfast, is an internationally respected consultant in psychological trauma who has provided psychosocial support in the wake of traumatic incidents including terrorism and natural disasters at home and abroad.  

Bishop Eames remembers numerous harrowing experiences and one in particular stands out, when he was once burying a RUC officer.

“The service had taken place, the RUC band was playing, the drums beating and amid all the paraphernalia my robes were tugged and I looked down and a wee boy of seven or eight looked up at me and said ‘Archbishop, what have you done to my Daddy?’

“When things like that happen and bring us to that point doesn’t it go back to my imagery of Holy Week and Good Friday? And it is that level of emotional suffering that to me makes sense out of the dilemmas and the problems of Northern Ireland and of the world.”

Yet hope springs eternal and Lord Eames stresses that because of his Christian faith he never gave up hope that better days would come and he regards developments such as the remarkable co-operation of the DUP and Sinn Féin in coalition as justifying that hope and completing what he calls “the circle of history” and “part of a huge tapestry which helped me to go on believing in the Resurrection”.

“I don’t think I ever lost hope that there would be an end to it [the conflict]. I remember being in the company of [Sir] George Quigley, George and I were the observers of the destruction of the UVF and UDA arms. Standing on that hillside in Co. Down, seeing those arms destroyed I remember saying to myself, this is the end to it, in theological terms this is the end of Holy Week, the end of the darkness, now can we turn that experience into the Resurrection?”

Affirming that hope, Lord Eames says he is “not despondent and not surprised that there has not been more progress in the 18 years since the Good Friday Agreement but what has amazed me is the reaction of people I meet in England now who say that the agreement and decommissioning means the end [of our particular problems].

“I say, listen, it was only a stage in the way, we are not nearly there yet.”

Lord Eames may be close to the heart of the British Establishment but he is evidently critical of what he hears from some voices around Westminster and his words echo the sentiments about the historic depth of prejudice and mistrust here expressed in his book Chains to be Broken (Blackstaff Press 1992). 

“The attitude now is just don’t bother us, go away, fix it up, you’ve got all you’re going to get, get on with it. And I have to say to you, and I have to say to them, look, the struggle we are having now at the moment is we are slowly getting to some sort of real democracy, if you want to call it that, but it is a long hard road to achieve the sort of peace that we need.”

And he then comes back to the Resurrection and reminds me that it offers to humanity “the real truth beyond the grave and the darkness” but it is up to us “to accept it and work out what it meant for us as human beings”.


Bishop Eames says he is not surprised by the continuing revelations concerning the use of informers during Northern Ireland’s Dirty War. 

He says “the greatest privilege” of his long ministry, including the Eames-Bradley period, was the way people “on both sides talked to me and trusted me and shared with me, looking for guidance, confessing things, sometimes simply to get things off their chest”.

Such things will never be written down and he will take many secrets to his grave. 

“Were I to write a list of the confidences I was given this world wouldn’t be big enough to protect me.”

Lord Eames praises the Irish Government for “the tremendous dignity with which it marked the Centenary of 1916” remarking that it would have been easy to have turned such “a great event” into an exercise in “political propaganda”.

Looking ahead to next month’s ‘Brexit Referendum’ Lord Eames, a legislator after all in the Lords, describes himself as “a Euro sceptic and wearing my jurisprudential hat and as a legislator I think that a lot of the authority to legislate and to produce the rule of law for the United Kingdom is not as strong as it should be given the power of Brussels”.

However, he says “I simply have not made up my mind on how I will vote”.   

Conscious that he is getting on in years Robin Eames volunteers “I don’t know what lies beyond this life” but “one day, if my faith is what I believe it to be, it will be shown to me”.

Asked if he ever has any problems with any elements of the Creed he is emphatic: “No. I have no problem there because I realised from the word go there where things I would have to accept as part of the mystery.”

Robin Eames adds: “It is today, in old age, sufficient for me to say [quoting the Apostle Paul] ‘Now I see through a glass darkly; but then face to face’.” [1Cor 13:12]