Reconciliation is the key to our contested past

Reconciliation is the key to our contested past Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin elbow bumps the Irish Government Chief Whip Jack Chambers following a service to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland in Armagh. Photo: Chai Brady

I’ve mentioned once or twice before that I grew up in Northern Ireland and for me it will always be home. When I was six-years-old, the British and Irish governments signed what became known as the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. For the first time, it gave the Irish Government a say in the day-to-day affairs of the North and the reaction from loyalist hardliners was fury.

One of the first reactions was when loyalist workers turned off the electricity grid to large parts of the region. It was winter, and I remember the struggles to keep warm.

There was more to come. A few days later as we tried to go to school, local loyalist farmers had blocked the road with large slurry tankers and were setting up barricades to show their rage at the agreement. I will never forget sitting in the back of my parents’ car trying to make the journey to school while protesters kicked the car doors and banged the roof to prevent us while members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) stood on with a mixture of humour and disinterest in their faces.


I also remember what they shouted at us – but that has no place in a Catholic newspaper.

I was – of course – mercifully spared the worst ravages of the partition of the island that occurred in 1921 when hell was unleashed on northern Catholics. Almost immediately, thousands of Catholics were forced out of their homes and thousands more were ‘expelled’ from their jobs by vigilante groups with the full blessing of the newly-installed “Protestant parliament for a Protestant people” at Stormont (that is how James Craig, prime minister of Northern Ireland described the legislature he presided over).

It is no exaggeration to say that the first 50 years of the existence of the northern state on this island was one of apartheid. Sure, Catholics were allowed to take buses and – mostly – walk freely in the streets. They were not, however, afforded the same opportunities in housing and employment as their Protestant neighbours.

In 1933, Basil Brooke – who would also go on to be a prime minister – told an Orange parade: “I would not have a Roman Catholic about the place and neither should you.”

Voting rights were a joke as those who did not own property (mostly Catholics) were not allowed to vote. Even if they had been, gerrymandering had been executed to ensure permanent unionist majorities even in the staunchest of Catholic areas.


A lot of these thoughts were to the fore of my mind as I sat in Armagh on Thursday for the service of reflection and hope to mark partition. Why do I bring them to mind? Not out of any sense of bitterness, but from a profound conviction that the past must be faced with courage and that we need to have difficult conversations about the past.

The Armagh ceremony – organised by the main Church leaders – had become controversial after President Michael D. Higgins refused an invitation saying he felt the event had become political. My experience in Armagh proved to me that it was anything but political. One cannot do otherwise than accept the bona fides of the president’s view. But some others were in my view cynical and opportunistic. Some commentators – and politicians – spun the event as a ‘celebration’ of partition and the participation of Catholics as a betrayal of their identity and past.

What, I wonder, did they find so objectionable? Was it victims of the troubles reading prayers, or the schoolchildren singing about hope?

If anything, the event in Armagh had more of a funerial tone than that of a celebration. Archbishop Eamon Martin spoke movingly about the hurt felt in the Catholic community as a result of partition and subsequent events.

For me, one of the most poignant moments during the entire event was when we heard from the post-Good Friday Agreement generation, those born after 1998 who have only ever known peace. It made me reflect on the wastefulness that was part of my own childhood with the constant news of bombings and shootings. They pleaded for leaders not to abandon the work of reconciliation just because it is hard.

Reconciliation is hard, and it is sometimes controversial as some of the more reactionary opinion on last week’s event has proven. But it is worthwhile – and our island is a lot better than the one I grew up on because of the peace process, imperfect as it is.

We can’t forget that as we build a new Ireland together.

Read more here – A day of grace and reconciliation