Ireland – after a year away

We’re back in Donegal after being away for a year. Just up the road in Portnablagh we met this – very Irish – quaint even. But then I thought of Portadown days. The dead were brought home. People gathered with tea, cake and the ubiquitous pavlova. This happens in communities where families have lived close for generations. A funeral is a community event and everybody understands how it is done properly. That is something precious.

And we had another example of what makes this kind of community special. A puncture on Saturday when we needed to go to the Stena Terminal in Belfast on Sunday. People like us go on the internet and ask, ‘Where can I get a puncture repaired on Sunday?’ To which the answer is ‘With great difficulty or not at all’. At which point a single phone call revealed that our nearest neighbour over the hill had what was needed and fixed it in five minutes. Good communities are full of people with skills and kindness.

Beaches around here are magnificent – and virtually deserted. The one we were on today had lots of children having surfing lessons. Some quick research shows that the Surf Schools are real engines of tourist development – making the most of our difficulties with travel – showing adults and children alike that there is very little to beat a Donegal beach, even in the rain

Meanwhile I think about what are the really big issues here.

Well Brexit obviously and the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Ireland is an enthusiastic member of the EU and is also passionate about the Peace Process. Brexit faces in other directions.

I’ve also been following an issue which seems to me to illustrate the question whether Ireland is that modern, social-democratic, European country or – or maybe also – a regressive, religiously conservative country. That issue is the plan to build to build a new National Maternity Hospital on the site of the large St Vincent’s Hospital on the south side of Dublin. The issue is that the land on which this €800 million public hospital is to be built is in the trustee ownership of the Sisters of Charity. The state will lease the land for 99 years and the hospital itself will be a private charitable institution.

Ireland has long had difficulty with the question of whether Catholic moral teaching should apply within medical services. That question is obviously particularly acute in the context of a maternity hospital.

Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole has been writing about this issue. In June he wrote that ‘A real republic should not have charity delivering public welfare’. And he goes on to say that ‘It is time to put a stake through the heart of this slavishness. Maternity and reproductive services are not charitable gifts.’

The vehemence of his language suggests that he sees this issue as another test case – a nation-defining issue -:for modern Ireland.

More of my story too

As I came to the end of Mary McAleese’s autobiography, I found myself drawn back two memories

The first was admiration of her ability to recall her experience of the very early days of the Troubles – and the costly and painful impact on her, her family and her community. In 1976, I set out in ministry as the Curate in Holy Trinity, Joanmount, which was just up the Ballysillan Road. We lived in Cliftondene Gardens very close to the peaceline/barricade which closed us off from Alliance Avenue and Ardoyne.

As the years have rolled by, I have often been surprised by the things from those days which I have forgotten – or which perhaps I choose not to remember – or more likely which I have tucked away somewhere in my mind from which they emerge unexpectedly!

Looking back, it seems to me as if we did our ministry as if things were normal. I went house to house visiting in the evenings even though there were no streetlights in much of the parish. I got used to putting my visiting card through the letterbox before the door would open. People were astonishingly resilient in very difficult times. Sometimes it was funny – like the lady whom I met in a house near the church. She told me that there was shooting on the road which led home for both of us – ‘but if I walk with you I’ll be all right’

And then I thought of something from much later on – from the 19 years we spent in Portadown, much of it overshadowed by the Drumcree parading disputes. President McAleese issued an invitation to the Portadown Orangemen to come to a Reception in her official residence in Dublin. Of course they were going – why would they not? And they wanted me to go with them. So Alison and I drove down from Donegal where were on holiday and joined them.

Mary McAleese’s peacemaking had two strands – she was fearlessly challenging to her ‘own’ community and she was warmly generous in reaching out across Ireland’s divisions, I admire her greatly for both,

My story too

I’ve been reading the autobiography of former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese -‘Here’s the Story’. She read it recently on BBC Radio4 Book of the Week.

The picture with President McAleese and her husband, Martin, dates from St Patrick’s Day 2008 when I preached in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin and attended a reception in the President’s official residence, Aras an Uachtarain. Alison and I are with Dean Robert McCarthy.

Mary McAleese and I were born within days of one another and her experiences are of particular interest to me. I hadn’t realised that she spent her childhood in North Belfast. She gives a graphic description of the early years of the Troubles. It was the period when I was away at university in Dublin and Oxford. In 1976, Alison and I returned to live within about half a mile from her home. It was as she describes it – a dreadful time of random rioting, burnings and shootings. North Belfast was an area of intermingled communities. So doorstep assassinations were common.

Many people have tried to sum up the deep roots of the conflict. Mary McAleese described it like this: ‘In schools, homes, communities and churches, carefully bundled formulae saw to it that no one, not even the best of neighbours, could easily detach from the adversarial bunkers birth had allocated each of them to’

What she calls the game changer for her generation of Catholics n Northern Ireland was the introduction of free second-level education at the end of the 1940’s. She says, ‘The excellent education we received in Catholic schools gave us the intellectual tools and self-confidence with which to challenge the vast presumptuousness and pomposity of the Protestant elite who governed Northern Ireland’. My experience is that the tragic counterbalance to that is the ‘brain drain’ of highly educated young people from the Protestant community leaving an obvious leadership deficit in their community. Neither I nor any of my siblings – nor do any of our three children – live in Northern Ireland.

Mary McAleese writes movingly of the Peace Process – that pursuit of the studied ambiguities which enable deep divisions and old hurts to be overcome. Particularly significant is her account of the process which led to the Queen’s State Visit in 2011 – a highly successful visit which changed the face of modern Ireland.

There is much to learn from this book – not just of the slow and steady movement towards some kind of peace – but also of Mary McAleese’s attempt to challenge the deep conservatism of the Irish Catholic Church.

Back to Rioting

I left Northern Ireland in 2005. So I have a sort of accumulated understanding of it – but I don’t have the day by day nuances of it any more.

I certainly know about the peace lines where the current rioting is taking place. I made my start in ministry in 1976 on the Oldpark and Ballysillan Roads. In West Belfast, the communities are divided into clearly-defined areas. But this area of North Belfast was and remains an area of conflict because the communities are interwoven street by street. In the parish area where I started, there were no fewer than eight peace lines – tall metal structures designed to make people feel safe by separating them. And now, nearly fifty years later, the same cycles of violence are being played out. And the reasons for it are both as brutally simple and as mystifyingly complex as ever.

The simple answer? Well it usually comes down to some version of the Zero Sum Game. BBC reporter Emma Vardy walked down the pavement with a young man who explained it succinctly – if people come to believe that Sinn Fein are winning, then our side must be losing. And some suggest that the view that Sinn Fein are winning is rooted in the decision not to bring prosecutions for Covid rule violations around the funeral of IRA leader Bobby Storey. And so we see young people hurling rocks and petrol bombs.

But the more complex reasons?

Today’s headline in the Guardian says ‘Boris Johnson’s careless Brexit is now playing out in Belfast. And surely at least some of the truth is in there. Brexit was always going to be costly for Ireland – if there couldn’t be a border on the island of Ireland, then there had to be a tariff barrier in the Irish Sea. That has been enough to lead some of the unionist population to believe that their status within the United Kingdom is being changed. We have sat on the quayside in Larne and Cairnryan and thought about these things – sat in queues sometimes of as few as eight cars and thought about the nonsensical and whimsical plans for a bridge or a tunnel as a way of helping us to feel closer together

If we open the focus out more widely, we end up needing to consider the future shape of the nations of the British Isles and their inter-relationships

I’ve been reading Gavin Esler’s book: ‘How Britain ends: English nationalism and the rebirth of four nations’

I’ll return another day to the themes of this book. But for now, I simply restate this comment: ‘The central argument of this book is that, while the United Kingdom can survive Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalisms, it cannot survive English nationalism’

That analysis assumes that Brexit is an expression of English nationalism. As such it inevitably destabilises all the other relationships within the United Kingdom and the British Isles.