After the Troubles

July 16, 2012
Article image

My family and I are on a three-week vacation in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. As we planned our trip, my wife and I felt somewhat nervous upon realizing that we and our two young daughters would be staying in the resort coastal town of Portrush, near Giant’s Causeway and the Old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim, on the 12th of July.

The 12th is the annual commemoration by Protestants in Northern Ireland of William of Orange’s victory over James II. Tension and conflict have accompanied the marches, especially during the 30-year-long Troubles. After the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the violence decreased significantly. But after centuries of mutual fear and antipathy, change takes time.

They say that everyone has an Ian Paisley story. My own memorable encounter with the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party occurred in 2000 at Storemont in Belfast. Gordon Shea and I were there with 20 students from Simpson College, and we had a private audience with Paisley to hear his perspective on the Troubles.

Before the meeting, a number of scholars rightly informed us that the violence in Northern Ireland was as much about economics and politics as religion. When one of the students asked Paisley why he refused at that time to negotiate with Sinn Féin, however, his animated reply reminded us of the role that religion continued to play.

Sitting immediately to my left, Paisley tapped my shoulder with the back of his hand and with a raised voice asked, “Do you expect me to sit next to a Catholic after all they have done to us?” I will never forget the stunned look on my students’ faces. Because Simpson College is a United Methodist-affiliated institution, Paisley must have assumed that I was a Protestant.

Six years later, in the Saint Andrews Agreement, Paisley committed to a power-sharing government with Sinn Féin. Given his emotional reaction to my student’s question, I was as surprised as I was pleased with his about face.

My students and I also met with Protestants and Catholics in Belfast and Londonderry who had lost loved ones to the sectarian violence of the Troubles—but who were endeavoring to forgive and to reconcile with the other. And we spent some time in Ballycastle with the Corrymeela Community, which since 1965 has offered educational programs to help foster the peace process in Northern Ireland. As a former law enforcement officer, I was struck by stories of Protestant police and Catholic youths from Belfast who participated in workshops and recreational activities together. Later, that experience would sometimes defuse tense confrontations in their city.

So I wondered what I would see last week, and especially on the 12th. Driving into Northern Ireland, we passed through a couple of small towns decorated with British flags draped from street lights and with fresh red, white and blue paint on the curbsides. The morning of the 12th, we saw some marchers with their banners assembling to parade. After dinner we happened upon another Orange parade in Portrush. As a Catholic who even has British ancestry, I felt very uncomfortable witnessing this first-hand—and trying to explain it to my seven-year-old daughter. 

But even with all the flags, banners and drumming, it was a relatively small parade. Overall, marches by the Protestant unionists and loyalists have been tamer than in the past, with less in-your-face parading through Catholic neighborhoods. This gives me hope that the peace process is gaining more and more purchase here. All of the people we’ve spoken to have expressed their desire for a better future.

Yet the marches go on. In north Belfast some police were injured as loyalists and nationalists confronted each other during an Orange Order parade through the Catholic Ardoyne area. Tensions escalated Friday, both there and in Londonderry.

“No yard of road,” said the chair of the Police Federation, “is worth either an injury or the death of a police officer or a member of the public. The parade should not become a day of shame for both communities.” I’d add that it also should not become a day of shame for for the Protestant and Catholic communities, which both worship and follow the Prince of Peace.


After the troubles

Let me give a comment as one who was born in North Belfast, has lived in Scotland and England and in the Republic of Ireland and in back in North Belfast ministering and living. I live within a mile of the area of Ardoyne (where I was born) and my congregation is a metter of 500 yards from the infamous Ardoyne round-about.

All christians believe it is wright to talk and sometimes even to negotiate. However life is not always that simple and life in Northern Ireland is never simple and always complex. Just as the colour problem in many parts of the US and Great Britain is not completely settled neither is our problem settled. The big issue here is about the "victims"- the difficulty that many have is that our government, post peace agreement, has convicted terrorists in power when both the US and the UK government have spent the last ten years fighting terrorism. To get everyone rpound the table the two dominant parties have taken the bulk of the power and that explains why Ian Paisley changed his mind. That is the price for peace and if it works we may all be glad but there is also a price in terms of the democratic process in that we do not have an opposition as most political systems understand that term-all decisions are made on a cross community concensus.

As Christians, however, who believe that the kingdom of God is more important than the kingdom (or republic) of man we know that real peace will only come when the hearts and minds of the people living in the community are changed. Both communities refuse to give any quarter because they are in the business of power grabbing. When you live and breathe in a place your perspective is practical and real and not merely theoreical and distant. I believe that the Prince of Peace really wants his people to live in the difficult communities so that they can be the light and the salt and be the people praying and workong for the welfare of the city. Too many Christians have fled from these difficult and often poor places to live in the green pastures of the subburbs.