Letter: Penitence in Northern Ireland

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The Independent Online
Sir: I write, both as a senior officer who has served frequently in Northern Ireland and as someone who in three months' time will be ordained deacon, to add my support to what Canon Nicholas Frayling said in his letter (29 March). The situation in Ulster is not essentially a military problem. But for more than 20 years soldiers have been putting themselves at the service of these communities in conflict. It has been service with a capital 'S', and there has been a great deal of sacrifice. But behind it all there is a sense of frustration at the intransigence of both sides and the hopelessness of a solution being found.

As Canon Frayling points out, the present situation, in all its brutality and hopelessness, must be seen against the background of centuries of tragic history. There can be no reconciliation until or unless one side or the other makes a conscious decision to express the sort of sorrow and penitence Canon Frayling writes about so compellingly. Susan McHugh's initiative and the rallies last weekend suggest that the time is right to give renewed impetus to the quest for peace.

Canon Frayling also rightly pointed out that our generation had no part in these injustices of history, but they cannot be denied. It is not a weakness but a strength to admit to the errors of history and to exorcise the past so as to be able to work for reconciliation in partnership; looking forward without the need to look back.

But what of the practicalities? The Irish president has made a powerful gesture by announcing that she will attend the Warrington memorial service. No one holds the Irish government or the Irish people responsible. Nevertheless they feel the need to express sorrow and penitence for what was done in the name of Ireland. Others must follow this lead. I have two suggestions.

irst, that the British government should declare a carefully formulated policy for peace which becomes a major plank of national policy and explicitly acknowledges the obligations that our history in Ireland, the Empire, Nato and elsewhere place upon us, and which is properly resourced. This, I believe, would make progress in Anglo-

Irish co-operation much more meaningful.

Second, all the churches should acknowledge that, despite the extremely heroic part played by many churchmen and religious groups, they have been hijacked and exploited in the Ulster situation. The fact that sectarian terms are used to describe opposing factions is evidence enough. They should come together, without denying the richness of the variety of their religious expression, as members of the universal church of Christ to publicly proclaim the determination of all who call themselves Christians to join together in burying the past and building the future, working for peace in a spirit of penitence and reconciliation.

Enough is indeed enough. But the full stop will never be written unless action is taken, not by making rhetorical statements, but with gritty, even ruthless determination. Christ's reconciling act required guts. Have we got the guts this Holy Week for sorrow and penitence?

Yours sincerely,


Salisbury, Wiltshire