Thursday, June 26, 2003

My Scottish grandfather wrote two books, ‘The Roman Church, Is it Holy?’ and ‘The Jesuits. Are They Christian?’ My Irish grandfather, who had served in the British Army, was told at the time of Irish independence, ‘You leave Ireland by the end of the week or be shot.’

My Scottish grandfather wrote two books, ‘The Roman Church, Is it Holy?’ and ‘The Jesuits. Are They Christian?’ My Irish grandfather, who had served in the British Army, was told at the time of Irish independence, ‘You leave Ireland by the end of the week or be shot.’ He did so along with his daughter who was later to become my mother.

A first step in confronting sectarianism in our family was taken by my mother many years later. Attending a conference in Caux, Switzerland she heard an Irish Catholic Senator, Eleanor Butler, a member of the Council of Europe, talking about European unity. Everything in my mother rebelled against her. Who is this woman, she thought, talking about unity and yet she chucked me out of my country. My mother was committed to reconciliation but had no idea of the depth of this aversion in her heart.

In the spirit of that conference centre - where you take time in quiet to see where you and your people need to be different, rather than pointing the finger of blame - she felt she should go to Senator Butler and apologize for the indifference her family had shown to Catholics over the years. She did so and they became friends and part of that army of women who have kept the peace hopes alive. Her example - and the concept that if you want to answer what’s wrong in the world you start with yourself - has been an inspiration to me in my work for peace and understanding.

Sectarianism is scarcely different from any other form of division. Its roots are in the challenges of any relationship - family, colleagues, community - where I think I am superior, where I am right and others wrong. Books are written on it, intellectualising it, making it much more complicated than it is. But as Peter Hannon, author of Whose Side Is God?, an enquirer in Northern Ireland, said to me, ‘If you allow God to show where you need to change in your most difficult personal relationship then you have the answer for sectarianism.’

I moved last year to North Devon. I told a local farmer that I was writing about the need for forgiveness and repentance in world affairs and that the painful. legacies of history could be healed. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘Do you know why Bideford is not talking to Barnstaple?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘They didn’t send enough ships to the Armada.’

This may be a slightly humorous image but these islands have other painful historic memories like the Massacre of Glencoe or the Battle of the Boyne. President Bush’s unfortunate use of the word ‘crusade’ underlines how long these memories can last, particularly in the hearts of peoples who have suffered. The roots of the latest Hindu-Muslim atrocities in India go back a thousand years.

British communities these days are seeking ways in which all their inhabitants can feel more at home. As we moved into the millennium, the Liverpool City Council voted unanimously to acknowledge the way it had grown rich on the slave trade. It was a significant step toward better race relations. Last year the City of Leicester, as Britain was inaugurating a National Holocaust day, likewise unanimously repudiated the anti-Semitic charter of its founding. Some have criticized this act as political correctness as the city has for over a century departed from those ways. But Jews in the city expressed gratitude and it must be born in mind that Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, has warned about the alarming growth of anti-semitism

British individuals, too, are reaching out in imaginative ways. For us in Britain, Northern Ireland is a constant reminder that should encourage humility when assessing the shortcomings of others. In recent weeks violence has once again reared its head and a showing of the film Bloody Sunday has raised the temperature.

Through research for my book Forgiveness: Breaking the Chain of Hate I was brought in touch with the Northern English town of Warrington where in 1993 a bomb set by the Provisional IRA killed two small boys and wounded 56 other people. The town responded with initiatives for reconciliation, including exchanges and festivals, peace walks and the building of a centre for peace named after the two children who died. Indeed, the recent Archbishop of Dublin, Donald Caird, says that Warrington has become a byword for gracious response in the face of evil. Last December the former IRA boss Martin McGuinness, now Northern Ireland Education Minister, met the parents of the murdered boys. He had been invited to Warrington by The Bridge, a local organisation set up to forge links with the people of Ireland. Wendy Parry, whose 12-year-old son Tim was killed, said, ‘At first I felt like I was betraying Tim by talking to a member of the group that killed him. But meeting Mr. McGuinness and speaking to him has helped me realise that we must put things behind us and carry on working for peace and reconciliation.’

McGuinness said he was conscious of the hurt inflicted, and told the parents that the killing of the children was wrong and shouldn’t have happened. ‘I am indeed sorry that an Irish republican was responsible,’ he says. ‘But we now have a need to face the wrongs of the past.’ Not everyone in the city welcomed the presence of McGuinness. Indeed, a poll taken at the time showed that most opposed his visit. Which underscores the courage of the parents and those working with The Bridge to move ahead anyway and the fact that forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation are not isolated acts but a long-haul journey.

This is the approach, too, of Jo Tuffnell, whose father, Sir Anthony Berry, was blown up by the IRA at the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984. In November 2000 she reached out to the man behind the bombing, Patrick Magee. He had been sentenced to eight life sentences for his act and was released in 1999 as part of the Good Friday agreement. They met first in November 2000. Tuffnell sees her exchanges with Magee as part of the peace process and necessary to her own healing. ‘I’m now much stronger as a person,’ she says. She tells me that she had doubted her decision to go public where the potential for being misunderstood was huge but can now write, ‘Yes, I can do it, I will share my truth. I will do everything I can to break the cycle of violence and revenge.’ As Prince Charles said at the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in February, ‘We need no longer be victims of our difficult history with each other.’

Denis Nowlan, Executive Producer, Religious Programmes for the BBC, in a sermon in Westminster Cathedral earlier this year, challenged us to see ourselves through our neighbour’s eyes and to step out of our theological boxes: ‘In September it was often said, ‘We are all American now.’ We didn’t mean we’ve all become any less British, Irish, or French or whatever. It meant we felt the Americans’ loss and stood with them in their pain’.We will not have peace in the world, and the church will not find its full calling in our time, until Christians can say: ‘We are all Muslims now.’

In that spirit one could even imagine Scottish fans cheering the ‘Auld Enemy’ in the World Cup!

This article appeared in the Scottish Catholic Observer on 15/3/02 under the headline ‘Why we must continue to keep building bridges.’