Hope in Northern Ireland

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Read the comments of Father Mark-Ephrem Nolan, abbot of Holy Cross Benedictine Monastery in Northern Ireland, on the Irish Republican Army’s July 28, 2005 statement ending its armed struggle:

The recent IRA statement is an important step on the path to peace. It was the statement that everybody had been waiting for, but not surprisingly, it came at an unexpected hour. The IRA was never going to accept being, as they would see it, stood over, humiliated and bullied into making this declaration, so it couldn’t realistically come at the end of any round of “talks.” That does not mean to say that I don’t believe the members of the IRA really do need to present themselves humbly and repentant before all the people of this land (and beyond) for the hurts they inflicted in the past, as indeed all sides in the conflict must do. Concrete actions on the front of decommissioning must follow without delay. Already on the day following the IRA statement, further British demilitarization has taken place. This shows the good will of the British government.


Not surprisingly, there is a restrained and somewhat guarded reaction within the local moderate Unionist community. The confidence and trust of these people needs to be gained. Criminal activity in former IRA circles leaves them still somewhat suspicious of the Irish Republican movement. The more extreme form of Unionism represented by the Reverend Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, a group that gained a very large vote in the most recent elections, has come out with a statement in which these words are like the refrain of a litany: “We alone will dictate!” This is just a mirror reflection of the former, then still militant, Sinn Fein (literally in Irish, “us alone”) attitude. The fact that a loyalist feud is currently taking place is worrying. It would be a much healthier situation if loyalists and unionists were united to welcome the IRA initiative.

I have never had any doubt of the responsibility of the faith communities in The Troubles and therefore in the peace process. This was strongly underlined for me as a result of the first public interview given by Father Alex Reid, a Redemptorist priest who has been heavily engaged in peace talks with the IRA, many of the political parties, and the British and Irish governments. Father Reid explained how at an early stage in the process he was in possession of documents being exchanged by Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) to initiate peace talks when he got caught up in a terrible tragedy wherein two British soldiers were killed. As he bent down over those dying soldiers to give them the kiss of life and administer the last rites of the Church, the documents he was carrying came into contact with their bodies and as a result were covered in their blood. Presenting these documents later that day to the then SDLP leader John Hume, Father Reid could only say that here was the sign that every risk should be taken to try to broker peace. In that same interview Father Reid spoke of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams having said to him that the only “institution” in a position to help advance the peace process in its initial stages was the Church.

For me, the faith communities are part — though evidently not all — of the problem, and because of this it is incumbent upon us to seek to be part of the solution. It is clear that a long, long process of healing has to be lived through in our deeply wounded and still so bitterly divided society, and therefore the witness of our monastic community remains so very relevant and its ministry all the more important.

We must be realistic. Hopes have come and gone many times in Northern Ireland. It has often been a case of some steps forward being followed by some steps back. Yet slowly but surely, progress has been made. As a community, our joy is great right now to see a breakthrough in what was a worrying stalemate situation. Realism tells us that the road ahead won’t always be easy, and others have to break through as well. It isn’t always easy to synchronize things. But as a Christian I believe in Saint Paul’s teaching that suffering leads to endurance and perseverance, patience engenders hope, and this hope will not disappoint (Romans 5).