**Click on above link to see Seán's beautiful new group page. This is a great article.

Always hope for peace at Christmas

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(Roy Garland, Irish News)

Last week BBC 2's The Christmas Truce drama/ documentary showed
British (including Irish!) and German soldiers fraternising in no
man's land at Christmas 1914.

The Germans risked their lives by approaching British trenches
singing Silent Night.

The British hesitated but the lower ranks slowly began to leave the
security of their trenches and approach the unlikely wellwishers.

Soon they were singing together, exchanging gifts, playing football,
eating and drinking together.

Joint religious services followed in which German and British
soldiers gave each other's dead decent burials. Officers, against
their 'better' judgement, were caught up in the spirit of that night
when up to half of British soldiers are said to have deserted their

The pointlessness of war was exposed and soldiers resisted orders to
return to the carnage. For a brief moment men re-discovered their
common humanity in the midst of that awful war. The precious moment
soon passed and man's inhumanity to man returned with a vengeance.

Unlike those soldiers, we Northern Irish people live side by side
with relationships that often cross over the 'peace walls' that have
replaced our no-man's land. Almost 10 years ago a Coleraine man, Hugh
O'Doherty loaned me a book on the theme 'leading from the back'. The
idea is that sometimes followers can be freer than their leaders to
initiate change – and to lead. This made sense and when I saw the
documentary about rank and file soldiers leading their officers to
discover the humanity they shared with other soldiers and I
remembered Hugh O'Doherty's book. I also recalled working class
loyalists telling me in the early 1970s, they wanted an end to
violence and a shared future for all the people. More recently a
leading republican told me that it was a similar small number who
took the first shaky steps towards peace and normality.

No-one can say how many lives have been saved as a result.

Today's old guards of reaction again raise their ugly heads and try
to destroy hopes of a better future. What's even more galling is that
Christian scriptures are misused to pervert possibilities of finally
ending the nightmare. The ultras wish to reinforce mutual suspicion
and hostility for they fear the rough and tumble and compromise of
normal politics. Some think they are gods and seek only personal
adulation and their opponents' humiliation.

Many now fear an increasingly deeply divided society with apartheid
stabilised and our people estranged for further generations. Our
leaders are not helpless and could be more daring for peace, but
their freedom is constrained. Some are tied hand and foot by the
delusions they fostered among their people.

If we are to avoid the dire consequences of division, we the people
must make our voices heard in all kinds of places.

This need not be in loud tones and all of us can take small steps to
make peace with those who are presently divided from us by walls of
stone and years of alienation.

We must never underestimate the power of dialogue to set us free from
the thraldom of myths and the slavery of sectarian division. This is
why some politicians fear dialogue more than bombs and bullets. When
the DUP calls upon republicans NOT to decommission, this suggests
that weapons provided a convenient means to avoid dialogue. However
when the guns are not only silenced but gone completely we would be
left without excuse before an incredulous world. When Paisley
repeated words about sackcloth and ashes my first thought was of hope
that republicans would get rid of the guns – with or without pictures
because it is guns and bombs that now stand between us.

This Christmas when we celebrate the birth of a man who taught us how
to make peace with enemies we should reflect on what has been done to
our relationships over the years of conflict. We came together
before. In the 1930s many Falls Catholics and Shankill Protestants
united to defeat exploitation and in 1976 25,000 Catholics and
Protestants walked together along the Falls and Shankill Roads
demanding an end to the mayhem.

Like the Christmas truce of 1914 these brief episodes were but
flickering lights in the darkness but it is better to light candles
than curse the darkness. Those stars of light give us hope in our
quest for a better day. Winston Churchill words remind us of the
familiar refrain "never, never, never" – but with a more positive
twist in the tail: "Never give in, never give in, never, never,
never, never, – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never
give in except to convictions of honour and good sense".

December 20, 2004

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