`We've been crucified for 40 years'

The Protestant view
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The Independent Online
I WAS born and raised in Belfast and I have lived here all my life, but today, on what is surely one of the most important days in the city's history, I will be elsewhere. Today you'll find me in Paris.

This year is my 30th wedding anniversary and I promised my wife, Valerie, that I would take her to France, so we're off.

But don't worry, I have already sorted out my vote. We have both voted a sensitive but firm "Yes".

I was brought up in a Presbyterian background. My father was a trade- union shop steward in the Ulster Transport Authority and it was he who instilled in me the sense of getting involved in the local community. It was he who told me that everybody could help make a difference for the better.

I was ordained in 1968 and I have been the minister at Fitzroy since 1976, but since the early 1980s I have been involved in a lot of reconciliation work, trying to bring both sides of the community together. At the moment we have regular services every month with the Catholic monastery at Clonnard. It is marvellous to stand at the front of the service and see Protestant and Catholic worshipping together.

But I think that has to be the way forward. I have lived through some of the worst of the times here and I have seen some terrible things. I remember in particular the time in 1992 when five Catholics were shot dead by loyalists in the Sean Graham book-makers.

The betting shop is just a few hundred yards from our church and, after the shooting, members of our congregation visited the families of the victims. Myself and other Protestant ministers also went to the funerals of Catholics shot dead by the UDA and the UVF. It did help bring about a reduction in the number of shootings.

I have personally seen a lot of violence and you do despair, but my faith is based on the crucifixion and the resurrection. The community here has been crucified for the past 40 years and the way forward, the chance that has surfaced, could help resurrect it.

For the past 400 years the story of Ireland has been one of Us and Them. What we have to do is talk about reconciliation and it is happening at every level. In the schools, children from different backgrounds are getting together; the community groups are doing all sorts of initiatives and some of the churches are also doing their bit.

I know the Rev Ian Paisley grabs some of the headlines but I believe he represents the past. He has always been negative and antagonistic and I believe his way is over.

Even in the early 1990s I never thought I would ever see an IRA ceasefire, but it has happened. I never thought I would see Sinn Fein moving away from violence but it is. I never thought I would see Sinn Fein agreeing to take part in a Northern Ireland assembly but it has. I believe Gerry Adams is a very skilful politician.

As I said, I have voted "Yes" to the assembly but I am sensitive of the issues. I have seen a lot of suffering and I do have a problem with some elements of the agreement - the release of prisoners and the reform of the RUC. But I believe that the positive aspects of the settlement outweigh the negative. I believe the hope outweighs the fear.

Ken Newell is minister at the Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, south Belfast, and a chaplain to the Lord Mayor of Belfast, who is a Roman Catholic.

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