e-mail us

Inside NCR

In Northern Ireland a moment waits to be seized

At press time peace still hung by a thread over Northern Ireland. The marching season was in full swing, and people on every conceivable political side were marching to an array of different drummers. While July 12 is the high point of this marching mania, the combustible political situation made each day a challenge for the little coterie of diverse politicians trying to fabricate peace from the wreckage of a generation.

But there was an odd wrinkle Sunday, July 4. The Orange stalwarts, who had vowed to march down local Catholic streets, as they have done for generations, backed down. It helped, of course, that the British army put on a mighty show of force. This would ordinarily have been a chance for the Orangemen to do their martyrdom number. And true enough, some got rambunctious and some did kick the pope a bit, if only in effigy.

But, reports hinted, there was a different mood, of jollity almost, a rare quality in an Orangeman. And when one of their own, a drunk, got too boisterous, he was rebuked as a disgrace to the Protestant church. A handful of loyalist leaders formed what was described as a dignified delegation, came forward and protested to the military authorities that their rights were being trampled on, then withdrew with the same show of dignity.

All this caused a little frisson. Was there truly something in the air? Perhaps short of forgiveness and reconciliation (see story) but still some change of heart.

One felt a sudden slight surge of alarm. What if the Orangemen, after all that has happened, should, at this crucial moment, take the high moral ground? Especially this century, the Orangemen have been the cement that kept together a system that caused great hardship. Was there a hint now -- either because the game was up anyway or because they were moved by some higher motive -- that they were willing to forgive or forget or make peace or make friends? It was a dizzy idea to contemplate. If the Unionist/loyalist/Protestant side were to go the extra mile, make the extra concessions, take the risks, hand over the guns that, after all, are more plentiful in loyalist than in IRA houses, they would be lauded in the history books -- and rightly so if they made such generous moves.

This line of thinking was prompted by a suggestion from philosopher Denis Hickey some weeks ago that now was the time for Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams and his followers to take this very same high road into the future. By handing in their guns, Hickey noted, the republicans/nationalists/Catholics would be giving the world, from the Balkans to Palestine, a model of peacemaking. No matter where the peace process goes from here, there would be more to gain than lose, both symbolically and substantively, by handing in the guns.

It’s true, as Adams said, that he doesn’t control the IRA or the guns. But it’s equally true that if he were to throw his weight and reputation behind the idea, Northern Ireland would never be the same.

“If the IRA have any Pearse-like idealism or the desire to carve their names in history, their only remaining chance to do so is by handing in their guns,” wrote Hickey, a resident of Southern California and a longtime Northern Ireland observer. His reference is to Patrick Pearse, who made a long-shot, fiercely idealistic gesture to beat the British in 1916 Dublin; who surrendered to save further bloodshed at the end of a week; who was then executed by the British; and who has, ever since, been the inspiration of the IRA and a hallowed name throughout nationalist Ireland.

Can Gerry Adams rise to the occasion? It would be a pity if “the other side” beat him to it. There is a moral high ground in Northern Ireland, and the moment seems right -- despite all the obstacles and bad blood and sordid history -- for someone to climb onto it.

There can scarcely be a U.S. Catholic institution as ubiquitous as Notre Dame University. Those alumni are everywhere. This widespread influence paid off, years ago, when the family and friends of Jim Andrews wanted to commemorate his too-short life. That network is as busy and effective as ever.

Our very own Jessica Ovel -- when she’s not busy marketing your favorite Catholic newspaper -- works with the local Notre Dame alumni club to coordinate the arrival and Kansas City stay of four Andrews Scholars who have dedicated at least eight weeks to service work.

In addition to facilitating communication between Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, the alumni club, the service sites and the students, there are also the occasional parents whose minds need to be put at ease as their kids prepare to live and serve in troubled neighborhoods, explained Ovel.

I ask myself,“ said Cardinal George Basil Hume in a videotaped message to the U.S. bishops at their June 18-22 meeting in Tucson, Ariz., ”whether it is ever sensible to stifle debate in the church.“ And in asking that question of himself, Hume, who died June 17, in effect placed a series of questions before the church and its bishops on matters ranging from the Roman curia to subsidiarity.

Some of the issues Hume raised as he discussed the relationships of bishops to the universal church are those he mentioned in a conversation with NCR last year (recounted in a tribute to Hume in NCR’s July 2 issue).

How was Hume’s video address received? Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, Pa., said he was “truly inspired,” and Trautman believes his colleagues were, too.

The crisis surrounding Catholic Family Service in the Fargo, N.D., diocese could well be described as outrageous or ludicrous but mostly it’s sad. Many people giving the best of their one-and-only lives are getting treatment they surely didn’t bargain for. Likewise, local Bishop James Sullivan’s one-and-only life is going down a road he didn’t bargain for.

The church is changing before our eyes and the church had better recognize it. The future of the Fargo church will not be decided in chanceries, or not in chanceries alone. It is, after all, the church of the people. At press time supporters of the Catholic Family Service staff notified NCR of the following efforts:

  • A “Rally for Justice” held in Fargo July 8.
  • An appeal to “pray for justice” in this situation.
  • An appeal for letters to Bishop James Sullivan, 1310 Broadway, Fargo ND 58102.

Donations to the Catholic Family Service Staff Legal Fund can be sent to 200 South Eighth St., Apartment 402, Fargo ND 58103.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 1999