Friday 24 November 2017

Queen's few small steps another big leap for community relations

It was only a few small steps across the narrow, rain-slick street. But it was yet another quiet leap forward for the painstaking pilgrimage towards peace.

It was just after 1pm when Queen Elizabeth exited the imposing Church of Ireland cathedral, St Macartin's, and made the brief walk across the road and into St Michael's Catholic Church.

This was the queen's 20th visit to the North since her coronation 60 years ago, but it was the first time that she had set foot in a Catholic church on Irish soil. No fuss, no fanfare -- she and Prince Philip were simply welcomed and escorted inside by the parish priest, Fr Peter O'Reilly.

It is unlikely that Enniskillen was chosen at random for another stroll across the sectarian divide by the queen. For this is a town which had its name twinned for so long with the word 'atrocity', ever since an IRA bomb killed 11 mourners who were attending a Remembrance Day ceremony -- a 12th victim died after 13 years in a coma -- and injured 63. All the dead were Protestant.

But something ripped in the fabric of violence on November 8, 1987 -- instead of tearing the two communities even further apart, more and more voices from both sides united to cry 'Stop', inspired by the bravery of Gordon Wilson whose daughter Marie had died in the rubble as he held her hand.

Enniskillen has had much healing to do, and the queen's jubilee visit was an acknowledgment of how far it has emerged from the dark times.

From 7am, the guests filed into the hall beside the cathedral, and the women had really put on the ritz, sporting new frocks, hats and jaunty fascinators. Even the ladies dispensing copious cups of tea were dressed to the nines behind a counter piled with serviettes in a choice of colours -- red, white and blue.

The weather was dreadful, but still the barricades were lined with hundreds of people waving Union Jacks in the wind and rain. Even Cardinal Sean Brady scurried into the cathedral, shaking rain off his vestments.

Inside the door a small crowd clustered around a television monitor watching the queen's helicopter touch down almost an hour late. "I'll bet she's wearing green," said one woman.

"No, she'll be in blue," said one man. And he was right. She emerged in an outfit of powder blue with white lace-pattern trim accessorised by a diamond shamrock brooch -- looking remarkably like a small but perfectly formed Wedgwood vase.

One woman glued to the telly was beautifully dressed herself in light grey. She was getting to shake the royal hand across the road in St Michael's, for last week she was given an MBE for services to education. Adele Kerr is principal of the Enniskillen integrated primary school, founded in the wake of the bombing, and which now has 244 pupils.

"It was a total shock when I heard," she admitted. "But this visit is really important for the town, we already have a very strong sense of community, and it's not just one side of it which is meeting the queen today," she said.

How did she, as a local woman, feel about the meeting and handshake due to take place between the queen and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness?

"People have to accept it and take it in the spirit in which it is meant, not make a fuss about it, and then move on."

This theme of reconciliation was echoed by the Archbishop of Armagh Alan Harper during his sermon. (He even used cupla focal of his own, recalling the visit to the Republic last year of "Banrion Eilis a Do".)

He described the visit as "the completion of an assent -- an assent that urges us and sets us free to build, perhaps for the first time ever in the recorded history of this island, an authentic Pax Hibernia," he said.

"The principal actors in that assent to the shearing of the shackles were two women: one a monarch, one a president; one baptised Elizabeth, one baptised Mary, both steeped in the practice and values of the Christian faith."

There was a real sense of celebration and occasion in the cathedral, especially when the service ended with a heartfelt rendition of 'God Save the Queen'.

Afterwards, she spent some time in the dean's house with relatives of victims of the Enniskillen massacre, before crossing the road to St Michael's church to meet clergy, including Cardinal Brady and local groups -- and teachers and pupils from the school which rose from the bitter ashes of October 1987.

When she had departed for her second engagement of the day -- a visit to officially open the South West Acute Hospital -- a relaxed Fr O'Reilly soaked up the happy atmosphere on the street.

"It was a privilege for me to be able to give joint voice to the sense of unity and community there is in this place. People go to each other's funerals and wakes and weddings," he said.

He tried to put into words the importance of her crossing a street, which may be narrow but was still a mile-wide gulf for so long. "What does that say? It says, a bit like Jesus said in the gospel, 'I've set you an example for you to copy'," he declared.

This morning when the Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces clasps hands with a former commander of the IRA, would it be so strange if both are thinking about the same passage of the gospel as they reach across the gulf?

"If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also".

ARE SINN FEIN BRAVE ENOUGH TO SHAKE MY HAND? page 24

Irish Independent

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