Some of us will gather together on October 21 in Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland cathedral, Armagh, to reflect and pray together in hope on the occasion of the centenary of partition and the formation of Northern Ireland.
This proposal has provoked a strong reaction in Irish nationalists. The argument against doing so — certainly in the presence of civic leaders — claims that it would be a travesty to be seen to ‘celebrate’ the injustice that was partition. It was, the argument goes, the outworking of a project that was either colonialist or imperialist, depending on whether we trace the wrong to the 17th or the 19th century.
One can use either of those prisms to assess the realities of either 1921 or, indeed, 2021. If we do follow those arguments, we succeed in making ‘us’ right and ‘them’ wrong.
At the time of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, we chose another prism — the gift of the late John Hume. We chose to use the prism of competing allegiances and loyalties.
The key that set us free from an ongoing and, possibly, endless war was ‘parity of esteem’. That was an amazing gift that bore extraordinary fruits at that time. We forget it at our peril.
Partition happened 100 years ago because our neighbours — at least one million of them — refused to be part of a united and independent Ireland for reasons that were utterly compelling for them at that time. They, like us, had a chest full of narratives of wrongs done to them and suspicions of likely oppression in a Catholic-dominated future.
When it is a question of neighbours in conflict, ‘our’ narratives (whatever their academic credentials) are never convincing to ‘them’ and ‘their’ narratives — which in turn always seem lame to ‘us’. I would love to see a ‘united’ Ireland in which we and our neighbours are at peace with one another. That is not the case right now; if anything, we are more at odds with each other than we have been for some decades.
I confess it was only with the success (at least, the initial success) of the Good Friday Agreement that I was reluctantly converted to John Hume’s vision of the unity of people being more important than territory or flags and emblems. His vision of parity of esteem for persons and communities holding different narratives — and remaining in dialogue, however difficult it might be — is more compelling than ever as the only sane and wholesome way to the future.
Those of us who believe in the power of prayer have a duty to come together with our different narratives about the past, acknowledging before God the truth and pain of our difference, and asking for light for the future. That we do this, in faith, hope and charity, is more important than who is on the guest list.
Bishop Alan McGuckian SJ of Raphoe is chair of the Bishops’ Council for Justice & Peace