Britain owes Ireland an apology

Bloody Sunday - 25 years ago tomorrow - is just one event in centuries of brutish British policy towards Ireland, says Anglican canon Nicholas Frayling. We must own up to this if peace is to succeed
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Tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of the deathsof13 unarmed civilians in Derry as the result of shots fired by British soldiers. Since that day, claim and counter-claim have ricocheted back and forth between the communities in Northern Ireland as to who did what, and why. As the anniversary has approached, fresh allegations have surfaced that the full truth has not been told, and that Lord Widgery - whose inquiry report had failed to acknowledge the innocence of those killed - was disposed to find in favour of the Army.

Be that as it may, the consequences of that day have been incalculably damaging to the cause of reconciliation. Scores of normally non-political young men have joined the Provisional IRA, and battle-lines have been drawn - not only in Derry but across the province - with new levels of bitterness and sectarian hatred, which the present peace process has done little, at a local level, to assuage.

Yet it is important for us, this side of the Irish Sea, to remember that Bloody Sunday - terrible as it was - was one event (albeit a defining one) in centuries of purblind and self-interested British policy towards Ireland, which has left both communities deeply wounded. Protestants feel an overwhelmingsenseof betrayal; Catholics, a still more potent sense of injustice.

It is a matter of sadness that people in Britain are woefully ignorant of our shared history. Indeed, we know more about the Romans and the French and Russian revolutions than we do about the island to which we have been bound by proximity, by shared language and Christian faith, to say nothing of mutual pain, for eight centuries. We have bequeathed a bitter legacy to the peoples of Ireland, and political expediency alone cannot excuse it.

We robbed the Irish people of their language and their literature, and we attempted to rob them of their Church. We colonised Ireland - especially the north - with people loyal to the Crown and the Protestant faith, and we persecuted the native Irish when they would not conform to our religion. We drove Roman Catholics into exile, and killed thousands of men, women and children - and we invoked God as our justification. We failed (150 years ago) to feed a starving people whose country was politically a part of our own, leaving millions to die or emigrate without hope. We demeaned the Irish people by caricaturing them as stupid, drunken and feckless, and when they protested, we met violence with violence. That is why there is an all-enduring sense of injustice.

As for the Protestant settlers, we planted them there for our own political ends, requiring of them declarations of "loyalty". We took shameless advantage of that loyalty, encouraging them to develop the land and then its industry for our prosperity. We exhorted them to fight for us, and permitted them to die, in unparalleled numbers, in two world wars. Then we let them know, in 1993, that we no longer had any selfish strategic, military or economic interest in keeping them in the United Kingdom. That is why they feel angry and betrayed, and the depth of that sense of betrayal was witnessed in the ugly scenes at Drumcree last summer.

We are all involved, and it simply will not do to say that the way out of this terrible situation is to forget the past. I am a priest in the Church of England, working in Liverpool. Much of my work is carried out in partnership with Roman Catholic and Free Church colleagues. A senior cleric in Northern Ireland said to me in 1994: "You can play your ecumenical games in Liverpool if you like, but here we live in the real world." He was unaware of the depth of sectarian hatred which characterised this city's political and community relations well into the 1960s. The public commitment of our Church leaders to ecumenism, and the tough resolve to work together at parish and neighbourhood level are transforming that situation. We have begun to learn that life is better together. This points us to an issue of vital concern for those of us who call ourselves Christian, of whatever tradition: the way to reconciliation is not to forget but to repent.

John Major has pointed out that we cannot be held responsible for the sins of our forefathers. He is right, of course, but nor can we escape the legacy, any more than Germans can evade the legacy of the Third Reich, or present-day Liverpool shipowners (such as they are) their forebears' complicity in the slave trade. We have to face up to the past and acknowledge it before we dare speak of disowning or forgetting. That, I would argue, is Gospel truth, but is also fundamentally true to human experience and psychology.

Maya Angelou, referring to the black experience in the southern United States, but in words which are of universal significance, has written:

History, despite its wrenching pain

Cannot be unlived, but if faced

With courage need not be lived again.

Richard von Weizsacker, former president of West Germany, said on the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz:

Whoever closes his eyes to the past becomes blind to the present. Whoever does not wish to remember inhumanity becomes susceptible to the dangers of new infection.

Those are words of wisdom, born of deep pain. Yet to speak in this way of Britain and Ireland is to invite accusations of being soft on terrorism, or of appearing to condone the behaviour of one or other group. But to speak in this way is not to offer a shred of justification for callousness, arrogance or even insensitivity shown towards those who, by accident of birth, happen to espouse a different culture or belong to another branch of Christ's Church. Recent bombings, here and in Northern Ireland, have been acts of gross vindictiveness, perpetrated by those who are bent on the crudest vengeance. There has to be a better way - and there is.

We start by admitting that we have all failed - British, loyalists, republicans equally - to offer a plausible answer to the agony of Northern Ireland. In theology we call that the need for redemption - the fact that we cannot save ourselves. Politics and peace processes, even when conducted with integrity and the best of intentions, can take us so far and no further. True and lasting reconciliation depends on something deeper and even more costly. It requires that we tread the road of sorrow and penitence.

As an Englishman, patriotic and frequently proud, that means, for me, that we as a nation should apologise unequivocally for our part in creating the horrible situation in the island of Ireland, and which peace talks from which any party is excluded, however cogent the reasons, cannot possibly heal on their own.

That apology, which Christians call repentance, must be unconditional. It invites reciprocal forgiveness, but it cannot justly demand it. It is not to say that we alone have done wrong. God knows, terrible things have been done, because it is a truth of human nature that blood will have blood. But it is the starting point. It is not enough to condemn the sins of others as if we were detached from them. We are all sufficiently bound up in the sins of the world to need to repent for them.

It is very difficult for politicians to contemplate apologising, for is to offer an apology not to display weakness? In the yahoo politics of the moment, ought we not to be asserting that there is a particular kind of courage and statesmanship which transcends the "normal" political process. In any case, apologies can bring great benefit to those who offer them, as well as to their victims ... especially if the apology is followed by generous action.

In Ireland, politics alone cannot heal the wounds of centuries - the hurt, suspicion and intolerance which affects both communities, much of which is directed towards our nation. These will remain, as an Ulster politician has written, "like a cancer, either breaking out or in remission, until imaginative and inclusive steps are taken to deal with them".

The first step of all has to be repentance. The Churches have a crucial role to play, here and in Ireland, for they are part of the problem. In Liverpool we have begun to understand the vulnerability that is at the heart of the our faith, and the inescapablerelationship between repentance and reconciliation, pardon and peace.

Scripture tells us that "there is no fear in love - perfect love casts out fear". To people who find those of us who say such things an irritant, or worse, I would point to the words of Dr Ian Paisley: "Conscience either excuses or accuses us."

Canon Nicholas Frayling, Anglican Rector of Liverpool, is to take part in services to mark the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. His book, `Pardon and Peace - a reflection on the making of peace in Ireland' - is published by SPCK at pounds 10.99.