Faith & Reason: When 30ft icicles hang by the wall

Paul Handley considers the formidable Liverpool partnership of Derek Worlock, who died last year, and David Sheppard, who this week announced his retirement.

The link between the Bishop of Liverpool and home maintenance is not a strong one, unless David Sheppard finds himself doing more of it when he retires in October. But it's my home I'm thinking of; and something the Bishop said when he announced his retirement this week.

I mention home maintenance with trepidation, knowing how dull it can be. When I was a teenager, my parents spent many hours deep in conversation with their friends about central heating and loft insulation, interspersed by occasional antiphons on the merits of anaglypta. I counted the minutes till I could slip upstairs with their sons to talk football and look at pictures of naked women. (Just imagine, though, if my parents and their friends had talked about football and naked women: I would have died.)

Now I am a home owner myself, the cupboards upstairs are full of tools, even though I try not to talk about them too much. None of the tools was any use, however, when a damp patch appeared on the wall in the baby's room during the cold spell last month. The cause remained a mystery, until our neighbours reported a 30-foot icicle hanging right down the side of the house.

My older children took me to see it when I got back from work. It was not a thin pointy one, but an uneven, ugly, wide thing. Tom, 12, pulled it, to see if it would move. Suddenly the thing broke off, and huge, heavy blocks of ice smashed down. They missed him by inches.

At the weekend, I leaned out of a top-floor window to discover the cause. An overflow pipe from the water tank was going drip . . . pause . . . drip . . . pause . . . drip. Those lazy, off-hand drops of water could have killed my son.

David Sheppard was talking about the sectarian hatred that existed in Liverpool within living memory. "Don't trust Mrs Murphy: she's a Catholic"; "Don't play with the children next door: they're Jews". When he and Derek Worlock, his Roman Catholic counterpart, arrived in the city, they were both told, "Things have calmed down; don't rock the boat." What existed, however, was not unity and friendliness, but rather what Sheppard calls "polite separate development". Sheppard and Worlock decided not to rock the boat exactly, but to push it towards the shore. The boat has swayed a few times. But, after years of steady pressure, it is now beached.

What was impressive was the quiet, determined way Sheppard and Worlock operated. They ensured that they acted as one: speaking together, campaigning together, even writing together. The only thing they weren't able to do was quit together: Derek Worlock died last year.

This is where the icicle comes in. Irish Catholics have suffered for centuries from lazy, off-hand drips of cruelty at the hands of the English. They have responded, particularly in this century, and so the icicle has stretched across the Irish Sea, to Liverpool in particular.

The easiest solution to an icicle is to wait for a thaw. The problem is, though, that the thaw may be a long time coming; in the meantime, the icicle is damaging the building. Another option is to try to pull it down: quick, but dangerous, as my son discovered. Sheppard and Worlock found a third way - to apply a gentle but steady warmth.

I used to think that the hatred and fear expressed by whole communities was simply individual hatred and fear duplicated. I now see it as almost a different element. Whereas individual animosity can melt quite quickly when warmed by repeated contact with the object of that hostility, group hatred works as a sort of permafrost. When enough people believe the same thing and act in the same way, those beliefs and that behaviour become part of a community's story, to be retold to successive generations.

In such circumstances, to wait for a thaw is vain; to attempt force is dangerous, as the British government found 25 years ago this week. The only solution that I can see working is when the true leaders of opposing communities, leaders who have the respect of their own people, agree to work together towards unity and peace. To be successful, they need a partner of similar stature whom they can trust; they need persistence; and they need time.

Because of Sheppard's surprising lack of preferment, he and Worlock had that last, precious element. Few other leaders do. Mandela and de Klerk did; Arafat and Begin didn't. Elsewhere, no partnership exists. Sheppard and Worlock have pulled a city together. But who is there in Ireland who will do such a thing?

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