Symbol, ritual and the charm offensive

The Methodists have been forgathering in Northern Ireland. The Rev John Kennedy reports that Protestants there are baffled by the reversal in roles between North and South.
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This month Methodists from all over Europe gathered in Belfast to celebrate being Europeans. There are a million of us about the place, and a hundred of us came from Scotland and Slovakia, Finland and Italy. We are a harmless lot, in a minority almost everywhere. We were all especially looking forward to meeting the Irish President, Mary Robinson.

When our consultation in Ireland was planned, peace seemed about to break out. Now, everybody in Belfast talked about "being on the knife's edge". This is the outcome of the summer's disastrous events at Drumcree. The RUC rerouted the Orange march on the Twelfth of July in decent recognition of Catholic feelings. The police were forced to back down, and bludgeoned aggrieved Catholics in the streets, on camera, to let the march through. This catastrophe looked vaguely from London like the work of intransigent Presbyterians. In fact, Protestants of all sorts were brought in by the busload to make their stand.

It seems to be just this moment that Mary Robinson was born for. She has good all-Ireland credentials, having resigned from the Irish Labour Party in protest at the shabby treatment accorded to Ulster's Protestants by the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. She also fought a hard presidential campaign against a nationalist from the North and a southern republican.

Her office is, of course, largely a matter of ritual and symbol. But ritual and symbol count for a great deal here. She spends quite a lot of time meeting community groups about the Province, including us Methodists. But it is strange; here is the president of a foreign country, going about the place rather as if she was Minister for the Voluntary Sector.

She seems brilliant at the job, saying just enough, with great charm. Protestant church leaders introduce her in Belfast as "The President of Ireland", even after Drumcree, and that is a huge tribute. She really delighted the Methodists. She praised the way that our ministers move about the whole of Ireland.

The charm offensive want further with Cardinal Cahal Daly, Primate of All Ireland. He recalled Churchill's famous phrase that outsiders should "respect the integrity of our ancient quarrel". The Cardinal flattered us by quoting at length from John Wesley's "Letter to a Roman Catholic". Wesley insisted, remarkably for the time, that the shared essentials of faith and a commitment to common decency should enable Catholic and Protestant to transcend their differences.

The poor old Prods feel rather buried under the weight of that winsomeness. They look with bafflement upon the reversal of roles between North and South. The Republic is now a self-confident European partner, which trades less with the UK, but whose citizens mill about between the two countries in vast numbers. The Republic is ceasing to be a confessional state in everything but formal trappings.

Some thoughtful Protestants see that reversal of perceptions as crucial. Thirty years ago Ulster's ramparts were manned by an ethnic militia numbering many thousands, and the world disregarded the outcry of the Catholic minority. Now the Republic is well regarded and the international peacemakers seem compelled to invite to the table an armed, murderous faction. In the image battle the Republic is an easy winner. With those long-leggedy Riverdancers pitted against the thick-set, bowler-hatted marchers, it's no contest.

Perhaps the most impressive interpreter of the unfashionable Protestant cause is Conor Cruise O'Brien, who has even stood for election as a Unionist. O'Brien insists that the Republican tradition is still awake to the ancestral voices. Ireland may no longer be truly a confessional state, but O'Brien claims that it still yearns for an old, perverted confessional style - that of the quasi-religious cult of the killer martyr. He emphasises the modernity of its current form - the Easter Rising of 1916. He spells out its need to provoke the shedding of its own blood, so that it can justify the spilling of others' blood. In his view, the Protestants have every reason for apprehension.

The older Methodists among our European visitors survived the blood cults of their own nationalisms, but they have not forgotten them. They tended to sense what was at stake in Ireland, much more than their British counterparts. It may be that peace in Ireland can be shuffled into. It may be that O'Brien, who has been right from Katanga to Armagh, is wrong this time. It seems incredible that anyone should feel that any conceivable united Ireland should be worthy of their sacrificial death. But the real conflict lies not in the realm of political deal-making, but in the realm of symbol and ritual. O'Brien and Robinson understand this well; we must hope that the voices calling from the ground for vengeance are at last losing their power.