A churchman's view of Northern Ireland

There are still those who are troubled, quite properly, by the idea of the present conflict in Northern Ireland as a "war of religion" between the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. This, however, is seriously misleading. Catholic and Protestant labels may be used; yet it is not a 16th- century ecclesiastical dispute but a 20th-century one of rival nationalism and political aspirations.

As misleading as the picture of a religious war is another which portrays it as a quarrel basically between England and Ireland or the British government and the Irish Republican Army.

The quarrel springs from the reality of the divided communities in Northern Ireland, with militants and terrorists on both sides. To ignore this is to deceive oneself or others. The government and the public authorities try to cope as fairly as possible, though it is a thankless undertaking. The repeated attacks made upon them, by physical violence and disorder, aided by an orchestrated international propaganda campaign, are aimed at destabilizing the life and constitution of the state. They seek to overthrow the clear democratically expressed political choice of the people of northern Ireland and deny their civil rights.

At least two-thirds of the people, mostly members of various Protestant churches, with a Scotch-Irish or Anglo-Irish ethnic tradition, see their national life and loyalties positively in terms of union with the "mainland" of Great Britain, within the United Kingdom, and quite negatively in terms of a "United Ireland" cut off from their roots. This does not mean that they see themselves now as Scots or English men and women, any more than a Texan must be a Yankee to be an American. And they desire good relations and cooperation with the Republic of Ireland, south of the national border, like the United States with Mexico.

The minority in Northern Ireland, mostly members of the Roman Catholic Church and cherishing the native Irish ethnic tradition, think more in terms of closer union with the southern state, as if Spanish-Americans were to look to Mexico; and to a greater or less extent they are opposed to Britain and the "statehood" of Northern Ireland. For historical reasons this community has labored under relative disadvantages -- social, cultural, economic, and political -- as has also happened to ethnic minorities in the US. There are, indeed, as many poor and disadvantaged Protestans, but from a larger community; and many measures for improvements and reforms have been enacted and support provided, even far in excess of what is given in the US, such as the massive state financing of roman Catholic schools.

Strong suspicions, however, have remained on the fundamental loyalties to the state of the nationalist minority and these have been a serious barrier to its political progress. It is this absence of a common loyalty that so inhibits proposals for political partnership or power-sharing between the majority and minority communities, when the constitution of the state itself is under attack, from within and from without, both by force of arms and by diplomacy.

Nor is this situation helped by the natural tendency of the news media to focus on the men of violent words and deeds rather than on those who speak of moderation and practice cooperation. This imbalance itself has deepened our divisions and our confrontation.

Even this focusing has appearedc remarkably selective, as in the massive coverage given to the deaths of hunger-striking prisoners, sad as any such death is, compared with the many thousands killed or permanently injured without choice or provocation of their own. There is a desperate immorality and injustice about this. The same too might be said about the featuring of public riot over against the restrained, but just as determined, expression of a people's will and feelings through democratic processes. This kind of reporting , in Ireland and overseas, has encouraged violence and discouraged those on either side who seek a peaceful answer to our problems.

The main churches, Protestant and Roman Catholic, have consistently sought to encourage restraint and oppose recourse to violence. Inevitably, perhaps, they may tend of reflect the political outlook and loyalties of their respective communities, while seeking to preach patience and courage in the face of injury and provocation, encouraging forgiveness, charity, and reconciliation. During these years of strife and division there has also been much more coming together; both of church leaders and of church members, with joint statements being made, studies undertaken, prayers for peace offered, and goodwill visits made. Groups of committed Christians, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, are engaged in various forms of community service and reconciliation projects.

Our church and people have had a long connection with America, both in the establishment of the US itself and of the Presbyterian Church there. We value the positive contribution which it can make -- providing it is well-informed as well as well-intentioned. Too ofter, however, it seems to us as if only one side is heard, as if only one side is really listened to, namely that of the Irish Catholic and not the Ulster Protestant community (which is not the same thing as the British government!). This only helps to destroy the credibility of even the best-meant American offers and suggestions. Our desire is not the Protestants and Catholics in American fall in each behind their fellow churchmen and women in Ireland but that all Americans may show themselves open to all sides of our ta ngled situation.

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