MEATH PEACE GROUP TALKS
No. 50: “Reconciliation, Peace-building and the Churches” – summary
6th October 2003
St Columban’s College, Dalgan park, Navan
Most Rev. Dr Robin Eames, Archbishop of Armagh
Msgr. Raymond Murray, PP, Cookstown
Rev. Doug Baker, Convenor, Peace and Peacemaking Committee, Presbyterian Church
Chaired by Fr Tommy Murphy, Regional Director, Columban Missionary Society
SUMMARY REPORT ONLY
[Editor’s note: further work to be done drawing on the tapes and notes]
1. Archbishop Robin Eames:
“Sectarianism is alive and well in every strata of our society. It is the ultimate anti-Christ, the ultimate conflict and challenge to be faced by the Christian churches” said Most Rev. Dr. Robin Eames, Archbishop of Armagh, and Primate of All Ireland, addressing the Meath Peace Group public talk “Reconciliation, Peacebuilding and the Churches”held at St Columban’s College, Dalgan Park, Navan. The meeting was also addressed by Msgr. Raymond Murray, PP Cookstown, a former prison chaplain and human rights activist, and Rev. Doug Baker, Convenor of the Presbyterian Church’s Peace and Peacemaking Committee. Fr. Tommy Murphy, Regional Director of the Columban Missionary Society, chaired the talk and Canon John Clarke, Rector of Navan, and a founder member of the Meath Peace Group, welcomed the distinguished speakers and the audience of over 150 people, including many parish clergy and the Bishop of Meath, Most Rev. Dr. Michael Smith.
Dr. Eames described sectarianism as a cancer at the core of society. “It eats away, it corrodes and it is inherited just as many an illness is”. As a church leader he was ashamed of things that were done in the name of Protestantism: “I have absolutely no doubt that Catholics have suffered discrimination, they have suffered inequality and they have suffered desperately over the history of Northern Ireland
“ ….there is no possible answer to the fact of the alienation which they were given and had imposed upon them in the history of Northern Ireland through the manifestation and the use of power by the majority.”
During the 30 years of misery the churches played the role of a social ambulance service, he said. “They buried the dead, they sympathised with the bereaved, they met the pastoral needs of their people.” The result was that they lost the freedom to be the prophetic voice. “Many many clergy of all denominations found they were literally chaplains to a tribe, chaplains to their own people and succumbed to the human trap of being over-identified with the outlook of the people to whom they ministered”.
The churches were now at a crossroads he said: “we are now being given the little space that we didn’t have in the 30 years to be the prophetic voice, to see the lessons of the past, to look ahead and, please God, to say things that have to be said.” The churches have got to work out a new agenda for peace he said. “We are on a journey, we haven’t reached there yet, and because we say we are the Christian churches we have to constantly keep a vision before us and be prepared to take risks and be prepared to take the dangers of being misunderstood and criticised in our step. He had hope for the future: “I’ve grown to believe that the Gospel I have always tried to practise is working out a solution in Northern Ireland despite the problems”.
Dr. Eames paid a warm tribute to the Meath Peace Group: “I’ve often heard of the work of the Meath Peace Group – unlike many groups that seek to be working under the umbrella of peacemaking you have been prepared to bring to your gatherings people who, in normal circumstances, might never meet. I congratulate you on that and I wish you well.”
2. Msgr Raymond Murray:
Msgr. Murray recalled the words of Martin Luther King in his inspirational “I have a Dream” speech to a civil rights demonstration in Washington in 1963. “I would borrow that dream for my vision of a future Northern Ireland… I hope to see one day the people of Northern Ireland walking free together in harmony, in the humility of conscious brotherhood and sisterhood, walking with peace and justice, respect and trust, and recognising the dignity of every human being. Free from state violence, free from persecution, intimidation and oppression by secret and secretive societies, depriving persons – Catholic and Protestant – of their free speech and their human need of civil and commercial rights. Free from disparaging blood-congealed nicknames that bespeak fear and hatred in the soul”.
He spoke of his first experience of Northern Ireland politics when he took part in the civil rights marches in 1968. “It stood to reason in the 1960s that reforms should be granted and granted quickly. Unfortunately reforms came too slowly and were sometimes so weak as to be spurious. The bubble burst, Martin Luther King’s cry for dignity was forgotten, in the end we all emerged as the guilty people of Ulster. Now we must gather our forces and head for the front, to face the sectarian foe, this time bearing our peace banners and thirsting for reconciliation”.
3. Rev. Doug Baker:
Rev. Doug Baker, who was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in the USA and first came to work in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, said that the Gospel puts reconciliation as the core challenge for the churches. “It is right at the core of the Christian faith”.
Reconciliation is central to the gospel, he said, “God’s agenda”, but it hasn’t always been viewed that way by our churches as institutions. “It’s been viewed as a kind of optional extra for people who might be interested in that sort of thing. But I am heartened by the fact that I think the churches as institutions are changing in this regard, are really saying that this is core to what we are called to be about.” It’s not just about sectarianism he said, but it applies to other divisions as well: “increasingly there are challenges to us looking at how do we apply the vision of reconciliation in terms of racial and ethnic diversity, across age barriers, across gender, across economic divisions, there are all kinds of places that this journey of faithfulness to the gospel takes us. It’s about being able to learn to live positively and creatively with difference.”
Rather than being a threat, diversity is actually a gift of a larger God, he said. “Racism and sectarianism are about distorted relationships, relationships that have been distorted from the way they ought to be”. Peacebuilding is a long-time process and it must be integrated with everything we do. It is not an optional extra, he said, we must think consciously as to how we are to give it priority. “In doing so, not only will we have good news to share but we will also find the renewal of the churches themselves.
Fr. Tommy Murphy said that the old saying “Charity begins at home” is also true for reconciliation. “Reconciliation also begins at home, and it is great for us to be coming together at home, in this country, from different perspectives to address this issue.”
In the question and answer session, the speakers were asked whether there was a need for some form of Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Dr. Eames outlined the South African experience but felt that such a model would not be suitable for the Northern Ireland situation – “we haven’t reached that point yet”. Msgr Murray said people who have suffered don’t like the word closure. “You can’t close off what they have suffered. Most are not interested in pursuing justice but they want the truth to be told”. However he felt that those who were responsible for the violence – republicans, loyalists and security forces – would not want a Truth Commission – “there is not enough humility and honesty there”. However, the victims want to tell their story and many of their stories are now being heard and recorded. This had happened in his own parish – people were moved to tears, and the families were strengthened.
Fr. Gerard Rice, PP Kilcloon, spoke of the importance of memory and the problems of history teaching in Northern Ireland. As a teacher he was shocked to find that in the state secondary schools in NI only imperial history was taught. “Nobody studied the history of the North”, he said and that attitude to history had led to myth which is adversarial by nature. Archbishop Eames agreed and he felt that while things had improved, Irish history was still not being given the priority it deserved. Msgr Murray said that a quiet revolution had been taking place with the growth of local historical societies where people were coming together and learning about each other’s traditions.
On behalf of the Meath Peace Group Julitta Clancy thanked the speakers and all who had travelled to the talk. She believed that all would take hope, inspiration and renewed energy from the discussion.