Letter: Sorrow and penitence must come before reconciliation

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The Independent Online
Sir: The deaths of two children in Warrington have led Susan McHugh and her friends in Dublin to stand up in public and say 'enough is enough'. We should all salute their courage. But that is not an adequate response. The time has come for us on this side of the Irish Sea to address the bitter legacy that has been bequeathed to the people of Ireland.

The more we look behind contemporary problems, the more we are forced to acknowledge the record of English involvement in the affairs of Ireland, from the moment when King John, needing to embark an army to subdue the Irish, established the Port of Liverpool. We can recall with what utter ferocity Queen Elizabeth I put down three rebellions, and the later establishment of Protestant settlements amid scenes of such terrible pillage that, by 1775, a bare 5 per cent of the island was in Catholic ownership.

In the mid- to late-19th century, the population of Ireland was virtually halved by famine and then emigration. As a consequence of the famine alone, more than 100,000 Irish people lie in unmarked graves in Liverpool Parochial Cemetery. Indeed, this city has been shaped by Ireland. To this day, its population is 50 per cent Catholic, and well within living memory local elections were fought between Catholic and Protestant parties. This is the bitter context out of which has emerged the well-known ecumenicalism of our Church leaders.

Over more than 400 years, terrible things have been said and done to Ireland. At some point, that reality has to be faced, instead of trying, by military and other means, to deal only with consequences. It is true that our generation had no part in past injustices - any more than young Germans today bear responsibility for the Third Reich, or present-day Liverpool ship owners are responsible for the slave trade - but we cannot escape the legacy. The past shapes our attitudes, and none more than our attitude towards Ireland. We can understand those attitudes only if we look for causes, rather than consequences.

It is a fact of Christian experience that there can be no reconciliation without sorrow and real penitence. It is never easy to say 'sorry', and to suggest that we as a nation should do so towards the Irish people is to invite false accusations of being unpatriotic or of handing victory to the terrorists; but that is a risk worth taking. It is not to say that terrible things have not been done by Irish people as well, but that somebody has to make the first move.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are the heart of the Christian Gospel. As such, they are the Church's business, and the Church understands that sorrow and penitence must precede reconciliation. When it comes to Ireland, the Church's business and political necessity for once coincide. In Ireland today, all the people are victims, including the Protestants in the North who feel constantly threatened as a minority. If such fears can be understood and set in a historical context, then we may be able to move towards a genuine search for reconciliation between all people.

The only way is to listen carefully to all parties, which presupposes the freedom of utterance. If this process has any claim to Christian inspiration, it must also involve the desire to offer, and to accept, forgiveness. If we hope for reconciliation, then we need not fear to address the bitter legacy of Irish history, and to acknowledge shame for past and present evils.

William Rathbone, a great Liverpool social reformer, once remarked that 'If a thing ought to be done, it can be done.' Can we not, collectively and individually, find ways to make amends for the past, in order that a political solution for the north and south of Ireland might be achieved by consent? Mrs McHugh is right. Enough is enough.

Yours faithfully


(The Rector of Liverpool)

Liverpool Parish Church


27 March