There was the usual raft of press releases condemning the violence and encouraging faith communities to work together. It’s right to protest about this kind of violence. I’m reminded of the saying that all it takes for violence to thrive is for good people to say nothing but I also have some lingering doubts. These statements suggest, at least implicitly, that the problem is with religion, with Islam in particular, and while many people will blame Islam, a whole religion cannot be blamed for one person’s actions. Do we suggest a problem that is not really there by highlighting interfaith relations? I suppose I wonder what it would have been like if statements had been issued every time there was an IRA bomb. As a Catholic would I have felt a bit ‘got at’ if statements had said let’s not blame all Catholics or people even suggested that Irish Catholics didn’t have a place in British society? There was some anti-Catholic feeling around in the time of the Irish Troubles and I did hear it from some quarters but the Catholic community in my experience didn’t feel under pressure or ‘got at’.
I’m very aware of the IRA connection because Martin McGuinness died this week. Martin McGuinness was an IRA official, he engaged in violence to free Northern Ireland from British rule and establish a united Ireland. But he changed, he gave up arms and the last years of his life were spent as a parliamentarian working for peace. He never lost his vision for a united Ireland but he worked through parliamentary processes. For many people it was like a miracle especially when they saw traditional enemies, Martin and Ian Paisley, not only working together, but obviously enjoying one another’s company. They came to respect one another in spite of their differences of opinion. Martin met the Queen on more than one occasion even though there would have been a time in his life when she would have been seen as the enemy and oppressor. There was a time when it seemed as though the Troubles in Northern Ireland would never be resolved, the hatred never dissipated and peace an impossible ideal. But it was resolved. The architects of the Peace Process were many but at the heart of it was a refusal not to opt out of dialogue and negotiation. Instead of pulling up the drawbridge and remaining in their polarised position they were open to listening to one another and something new emerged. There are still difficulties of course and sometimes it seems an uneasy peace but there is a commitment to working together for peace.
Martin McGuinness was central to this process. His funeral and obituaries were very moving. People who at one time would have been his enemies, who recognised his violent past and even suffered from it spoke movingly about his later life and his determination to work through democratic processes. One of the most inspirational eulogies came from Bill Clinton. He spoke of what he called the amazing unfolding of Martin McGuinness’ life, of how he grew up in a time of rage and resentment and fought for his ideals with violence. But at some point he decided to give peace a chance, he listened, compromised and was faithful to his word. He worked for all sections of the community, expanding his definition of ‘us’ and shrinking his definition of ‘them’ – a lesson for our times with its new wave of tribalism. Mr Clinton exhorted those present to honour his legacy by continuing this work for peace which sometimes demands a leap into the unknown against our better judgement. The way forward, he suggested, is for those who have legitimate griefs on both sides to face the future together.
Martin McGuinness’ funeral was a witness to a life well lived; an inspiration and encouragement that people can and do change; that determination to lay aside differences and work together for a common future is possible. Is it possible that something like this could happen with our Muslim brothers and sisters who feel alienated and discriminated against? The situation in Northern Ireland bears witness that such hope need not be in vain