A tale of Voltaire and the Orangemen: Faith & Reason

The paradox is that the same forces which brought about liberal democracy are also responsible for Ulster's greatest intransigence
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I SPENT part of last week at the Irish Methodist Conference in Cork, about as far from the troubles of the North as you can get. But the two looming deadlines were in everybody's minds, and in our debates. For, on Wednesday, we shall discover whether Northern Ireland is to have a legitimate government at last. And on 4 July, the Orange Order will walk down Garvaghy Road in the Drumcree neighbourhood of Portadown - or not. The question of the governance of the North seems central to most British people; the right of the Protestants to walk unwanted through a Catholic area seems a bizarre irrelevance. But the two are fearsomely related.

English Methodists tend to bone up on John Wesley in Ireland before they go to the Irish Conference. I did the same, and came up with an odd story. In May 1760, Wesley was preaching in Carrickfergus, the ancient fortress town on the north shore of the Belfast Lough. Days earlier, a French flotilla had landed, overrun the garrison, and stripped the countryside. All this was related to Wesley by a Mrs Cobham, whom the French took hostage. She discovered that far from being an invasion force, the French were lost and starving. She took in the commander, a M Thurot, fed him a little veal and let him sleep, saying: "Bless you, you'll come to no harm under my roof!"

This bit of Wesleyana was on my mind as I walked round Fort Charles, at Kinsale, in the far south. Here you got a powerful sense of Ireland in Wesley's time - part of a burgeoning empire in which the Protestant British competed with the Catholic French. Those Britons saw their empire as humane, liberal, progressive - and vigorously Protestant. Voltaire praised those British values, especially their religious tolerance - but then he never went to Ireland. So the King's Redcoats patrolled their fortresses, armed against the enemies of progress and prosperity. And that defence was mounted equally against seaborne incursion from the French or rebellion by the natives. It was a very English version of the Enlightenment.

The marchers at Drumcree see themselves as inheritors of that distinctive civilisation. In their eyes the Orangemen have replaced the Redcoats as the defenders of our British liberties. This may seem preposterous, but they are deadly serious. As you read this, they are marching from Londonderry to Drumcree to build up support for what they feel is the last chance to save Ulster. They are planning a vast convergence on the route of the march on the Fourth. Posters dot Portadown, asking for donations of medical supplies to treat the expected casualties.

All this activity is aimed at forcing a march down a Catholic street in the name of those Protestant liberties - for the fifth year running, no matter what the damage to prospects for peace. The marchers simply cannot see that the residents also have the liberty to object to their presence, and that such liberty is one of those traditional British values that the marchers seek to defend.

And that is understandable to a degree. Few of us on the mainland have a clue as to the viciousness of the war that the IRA has prosecuted against them. To us, it seems clear that the liberal democracy which Voltaire craved is now all the rage in Europe, no less in the Republic of Ireland; the Church of Rome is somewhat in retreat, even in the Irish Republic; modern European civilisation has dissolved tyrannies more vicious and fanatical than those of Irish Republicanism.

But for the men of Drumcree observation seems to have been replaced by profound and unshakeable conviction. They seem able to dismiss the commitment to peace made over so many years by a majority of the population and - a miracle in itself - by a succession of British and Irish governments. They discount the determination of the military to end the conflict - and the Army's intelligence assessment that the issue of decommissioning will wither as consensual government in the province grows.

Here we seem to have a triumph of conviction over common sense, and a terrifying failure of imagination. For if next week sees the destruction of government by consent in Northern Ireland, and the Fourth sees a hundred thousand Protestants milling around in a political vacuum, what then?

The peace will hold in the end, I believe. But perhaps we will be faced with more tales of Christian hospitality - not quaint ones like that of the good Mrs Cobham, but horrific ones, like that of Mrs Jean McConville. She was the mother of 10, aged 37, who was taken away by 12 men in 1972 after placing a cushion beneath the head of a fatally wounded soldier who was shot outside her house, and saying a prayer for his departing soul. Her body has still not been recovered. Many more may die, Redcoats and Orangemen, women and children, from this failure to imagine the future.

In these last decades huge numbers of Christians in Northern Ireland have learned how to make peace with one another, and often paid a heavy price. It seems impossible that they should now be denied the fulfilment of their hopes. It is even harder that their hope is threatened not by terrorist evil, but by a form of Christian conviction that cannot read the signs of the times.