Fr Des
Rewriting recent history

There have been requests recently for recognition of the part played by clergy in bringing about peace.

One could put it rather more strongly: there should be recognition of the part played by clergy both in bringing about peace and in preventing it. The arrangement by which Ireland was split in two was not approved by the majority of clergy. But once it was done, the majority of Protestant clergy in the northeast supported the partition. And many Catholic clergy, while disapproving of it, decided to work within the system as they had it rather than as they would like it to be. They had a large influence in the decision of nationalist representatives to go to Stormont. They had a large influence – particularly through Bishop Dan Mageean – in getting Catholic support for building up an education system.

When the war was started in 1969 the Catholic church leaders were insistent, as they had been in the 1950s, in condemning the armed republican movement. At the same time there was a very muted response, if there was any, from Protestant clergy to unionist violence – they either saw that violence as a just punishment on Catholics who "rebelled" or condoned it because of their fear of the various armed unionist orders, religious and otherwise. Those policies need to be discussed.

So there is indeed a great need for a thorough examination of the part played by clergy in the events of the past 30 years and the events of the past 100 years for that matter. Belfast has erected monuments to some of its clerical agitators, men without whose fiery rhetoric there might have been peace. In the south there is adulation for the slightest movement towards reason on the part of such orators, while the efforts of any other cleric even to comment on the systems of government and finance have been described by newspapers as unwarranted clerical interference.

One of the men most despised by the newspapers, Bishop Conny Lucey of Cork, was warning people decades ago against the encroachments of the state into private lives, something which people have reason to complain about today.

He was selective in his remarks, but he was right to be fearful of what a state can do with people's lives and rights and responsibilities. As the spurious war against terrorism now erodes more and more of people's rights and the European Union works in an information darkness which our European representatives failed to penetrate for us and tell us about, we see that we should not only have listened but should have tried to find out what exactly such people were saying. But the struggle for power between church and state in the South and the struggle for power among churchmen and politicians in the North was so intense that reason often went out the window.

And to this day there is little analysis of our situation in those newspapers.
So at what point do we begin this assessment of the part played by clergy in our affairs? Do we face up to the clerical agitators and ask others to do the same? Do we write history which says churches and trade unions and business people were of one mind in bringing peace? They were not.
One may hope that those historians who believe their job is to find out what happened rather than say what those in power want us to believe happened will lay aside whatever fears they have of those in high places, in universities included, who may discipline them if they tell it the way it was.

We know that there were churchmen who helped bring peace, but we know also that there were churchmen who solidly refused for all those years even to speak to republicans. That should not have happened. We were left in the position that British soldiers were talked to, police were talked to, unionist politicians and British officials were talked to, but time and time again there was official refusal even to have conversations between officials of the churches and the republican movement. That is the reality and it has to be stated now because as time goes on we may have a writing of history which is nice to read but hard to justify. If we are going to have history it has to be true history.

There is absolutely no justification in times of crisis or at any time for a refusal to talk to those who are either the cause of the crisis or victims of it. It must never be allowed to happen again that the churches, the universities, the newspapers and other people who controlled so much of the good things of this life should be able to turn their backs on their fellow citizens for the sake of spurious respectability or bad government policy.
Our people are too precious for that.

There need be no doubt, as Archbishop Brady has said, that clergy have a part to play in creating peace in Ireland. Whether they will play that part or not remains to be seen. What their part is remains to be discussed, we cannot ever take anything for granted. Maybe they have a vital part to play, maybe they have not. But one thing we can take for granted is this – if the policy of any church is to encourage the exclusion of any members of the community they are set up to serve, then that church should be asked to step aside and we must make other provision for those who have been marginalised in this way.

And that is a lesson we learned 2,000 years ago, not just from the experience of a 30-year recent war.

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