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Pope's peace in Ireland.

After years of sectarian violence, the people of Northern Ireland voted on June 25, 1998, for members to a new 108-seat Assembly. This body was created as a result of the historic peace accord struck by all parties to the conflict in that strife-torn province, on Good Friday, April 10. The peace agreement, voted on May 22nd, received a resounding endorsement by 71 per cent of the voters in Northern Ireland, and 94 per cent of voters in the Republic of Ireland.

The new Assembly, whose members are elected by a complex system designed to protect the Catholic minority, replaces the previous Protestant-dominated parliament that the British abolished in 1972.

Will peace be achieved in the beleaguered province? As Catholic Insight goes to press, Protestants and Catholics are united in grief after a car bomb exploded August 15, killing 28 people in Omagh, Northern Ireland -- a religiously mixed community 80 kilometres west of Belfast. At this point no one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but IRA dissidents are widely blamed for the violence.

In the article below, Toronto author Sam Woods gives a brief history of and background of those years in Northern Ireland commonly referred to as "the Troubles," and the influence of the Holy Father in encouraging peace.

On September 29, 1979, during his visit to the Republic of Ireland, Pope John Paul II addressed a throng of 250,000 at Drogheda, twenty miles from the border of Northern Ireland, where Catholics had died centuries ago for their faith.

". . . Do not believe in violence; do not support violence. It is not the Christian way. It is not the way of the Catholic Church. Believe in peace and forgiveness and love; for they are of Christ. On my knees I beg you to turn away from the path of violence and return to the ways of peace. You may claim to seek justice. I too believe in justice and seek justice. But violence only delays the day of justice . . . . Do not follow any leaders who train you in the way of inflicting death. Those who resort to the ways of violence always claim that only violence brings change. You must know that there is a political peaceful way to justice."

The Pope, standing in a field, had challenged his flock to turn their backs on the Provisional IRA, a predominantly Catholic paramilitary organization pledged to the use of violence to achieve reunification of Ireland into a single island nation, free of British rule. His slap would sting for fifteen years, and would sow the seeds of the ceasefire that led to the present-day accord.

He then appealed to the politicians who, by turning a blind eye to injustice, had allowed such deplorable sectarian bias to exist in Northern Ireland since its founding in 1921:

". . . To all who bear political responsibility for the affairs of Ireland, I want to speak with the same urgency and intensity with which I have spoken to the men of violence. Do not cause or condone conditions which give excuse or pretext for violence. Those who resort to violence always claim that only violence brings about change. They claim that political action cannot achieve justice. You politicians must prove them wrong. You must show them that there is a peaceful, political way to justice. You must show that peace achieves the work of justice."

Ulster in 1921

Northern Ireland, a British province, encompasses the northeastern one-fifth of the island, the top right-hand corner. When the rest of Ireland gained independence from Britain in 1921, the one million Protestants living in the northern six counties of Ulster refused to join a Catholic-dominated Irish Free State. They opted instead to remain as British citizens within the United Kingdom, ruled by their own parliament at Stormont Castle on the outskirts of Belfast. A line had been drawn across Ireland, partitioning it in two.

In the new province, Protestants outnumbered Catholics by a margin of two to one, and the Unionist party held absolute power. Born in an Orange Order hall at the turn of the century, it emerged as the political arm and fist of the Protestant ascendancy.

The organization which most typified Protestant extremism in Northern Ireland--the Protestants who live there call it "Ulster" --was the Orange Order, whose founding principles, openly stated with pride and conviction, were allegiance to the Crown, upholding the Protestant ascendancy, and hatred of Catholics.

Orangeism pervaded Ulster. Orangemen controlled the government, the workplace, the courts, and the law, and each summer during the "marching season" they took to the streets with pomp and ceremony to celebrate William of Orange's victory over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Sir James Craig, Northern Ireland's first Prime Minister and Grand Master of the Orange Lodge, stated publicly, "I am an Orangeman first and a politician and member of this parliament afterwards. All I boast is that we have a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state."

Sir Basil Brooke, Northern Ireland's Prime Minister from 1943 to 1963, expressed it more bluntly: ". . . many in this audience employ Catholics, but I have not one about my place. Catholics are out to destroy Ulster. Ninety-seven percent of the Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland are disloyal . . . ."

Civil rights

Ulster proved to be a fertile breeding ground for the worldwide civil rights movement of the Sixties. Catholics made up a third of the population; so fair representation dictated that one of every three workers in government and industry should be Catholic. That was far from the case. The Stormont government employed five hundred civil servants, only thirty of whom were Catholics, and those were relegated to lower-echelon jobs. In industry, advancement was denied them, and in elections, both provincial and municipal, the electoral boundaries had been so blatantly gerrymandered that even in predominantly Catholic areas Protestants managed to get elected. To further tilt the scales, extra votes were granted to businessmen, mostly Protestants, and votes denied to lodgers, servants, tenants, and children over twenty-one still liviing at home--in other words, the poorer class, mostly Catholics.

In 1964, in the town of Dungannon in County Tyrone, a middle-class housewife, Patricia McCluskey, founded the Homeless Citizens league to protest the lack of public housing available to Catholics, many of whom had been on the waiting list for years while homes in Protestant neighbourhoods sat empty. A pamphlet, The Plain Truth, sent a shudder through the halls of Orangedom, and the fear it engendered was well-grounded in fact, for the Homeless Citizens League spawned the Campaign for Social Justice, and Northern Ireland's civil rights movement was underway, sputtering along up the steep slope of Ulster's sectarian bias, building a head of steam.

At this point, the Reverend Ian Paisley jumped into the fray. From the pulpit of his Free Presbyterian Church he stirred the cauldron by playing on the age-old fears of the Protestant working class, agitating the masses into a frenzy of righteous paranoia, fuelled by his diatribes against Catholics, the "harlots of Rome." He railed that the civil rights movement was nothing more than the old wolf, the IRA, disguised in a Communist sheep's clothing.

1968: turning point

In June, 1968, civil right activists staged a squat-in to protest a local council's decision to rent a house to the unmarried secretary of a prominent Protestant politician rather than a Catholic family in desperate need. The peaceful protest, conducted under intense media scrutiny, set the stage for an August demonstration attended by a crowd four thousand strong. It was also peaceful. But an October march in Derry was not. The Royal Ulster Constabulary baton-charged civil right marchers who disobeyed a ban on their parade. The brutal assault, committed in full view of BBC cameras and broadcast world-wide, confirmed that a mass movement was afoot in Northern Ireland.

On January 1st, 1969, Paisley militants armed with cudgels and spiked clubs attacked marchers at Burntollet Bridge on the outskirts of Derry, and during the wee small hours of a Sunday morning a drunken mob of RUC invaded the Bogside, a Catholic enclave in Derry's west-end. They smashed windows, broke in doors, assaulted residents, and for an hour they rioted, still in uniform, red-faced, hats askew, singing their Orange Lodge songs.

The situation worsened as the summer marching season approached. Bernadette Devlin, a Catholic civil-rights activist elected to the British Parliament in an April by-election, made world headlines during her maiden speech in the House of Commons when she warned, in response to the escalating violence, ". . . If British troops are sent in, I should not like to be either the mother or sister of any unfortunate soldier stationed there."

"The Troubles" of 1969

On August 12th, 1969--a date generally agreed upon as marking the onset of "The Troubles" as we know them today--a riot erupted during the Protestant Apprentice Boys parade in Derry. Catholics withdrew into the Bogside, where they erected barricades to prevent a recurrence of the January invasion. When the RUC approached they were driven back by a withering barrage of stones and petrol bombs, and despite repeated assaults the barricades held. The "Battle of Bogside" had been won by its defenders, who triumphantly declared "Free Derry" a "no-go area" into which the RUC dared not intrude. When word of the victory spread, RUC stations throughout the province came under attack.

In Belfast, a Protestant stronghold, rampaging loyalist mobs retaliated against Catholic enclaves, forcing thousands to flee as their homes were set ablaze. The larger Catholic neighbourhoods followed Derry's lead. Up went the barricades and out came the petrol bombs. As street fighting intensified, the beleaguered RUC was nowhere to be seen, and at Stormont's request the British army was ordered in to preserve the peace.

Thirteen people died in the riots of 1969, but as the decade drew to a close there was hope for resolution of the conflict. In response to world criticism over the injustices in Northern Ireland, Britain insisted that the Stormont government institute a package of reforms to eliminate discrimination and allow for "one man, one vote."

Now that Ulster's civil rights grievances had been addressed, Britain confidently assumed that the troubles were over. But Ulster Catholics knew better. Stormont could not be trusted to implement the reforms, because any attempt to do so would be thwarted by resistance from within the militant Protestant community.

Meanwhile, a frightening new development had been added to the mix. A split occurred within the ranks of the IRA. During the August riots, when northern members asked for weapons to defend Catholic enclaves under seige, the Dublin-based Army Council refused to be swayed from its doctrine of change through social reforms only. The men of Belfast and Derry walked away, severed all ties, and set up their own organization, called the "provisional" Irish Republican Army.

The seventies

Throughout 1970, the situation continued to ferment. The British army, which had originally been brought in to protect Catholic communities from Loyalist attacks, became increasingly more involved in supporting Loyalist initiatives. Relations between soldiers and Catholics deteriorated, and the first violent confrontation occurred in April when troops in Belfast used CS gas to disperse a crowd that had gathered to press demands for implementation of the promised civil rights legislation.

"Rape of the Falls"

In July, the army, acting on a tip from an informer, found nineteen weapons in a house in Belfast's lower Falls area. When locals began stoning troops, the army sent in three thousand reinforcements. A curfew was imposed while soldiers conducted a thorough house-to-house search. Doors were kicked in, walls and floors torn apart, furniture smashed, and the residents manhandled. Gun battles erupted, during which four civilians were killed and some sixty wounded. The outrage provoked by "The Rape of the Falls" cemented the Catholic view of the British army as the enemy, pawns of the Protestant establishment.

In February of 1971, the Provisional IRA, or "Provos," as they had come to be known as, shot and killed a British soldier, the first to die in Ireland since the "Tan War" days, fifty years earlier. In response, Northern Ireland's Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, convinced the British that a hard-line approach was called for. Harsh new internment laws were enacted, allowing for detention without trial. In a series of pre-dawn raids, troops swept through Catholic communities, scooping up hundreds of suspected IRA men and crowding them into internment camps, from which tales of torture and Nazi-like interrogation techniques filtered back, driving enraged Catholics into the arms of the Provos, whose ranks began to swell.

To meet this growing menace, the Loyalist community countered with the Ulster Defence Association, a militant paramilitary organization boasting 40,000 armed "soldiers" province-wide. The UDA promised a Protestant backlash if Britain bent too far towards "Rome." Their mandate, clearly stated, was to meet violence with violence; if the IRA killed army or RUC personnel, then a Catholic would be shot in return. During the next five years, an estimated four hundred Catholics would be murdered by Loyalist assassins.

"Bloody Sunday"

On January 30th, 1972, British paratroopers shot and killed thirteen unarmed Catholic demonstrators in Derry. The massacre touched off the worst rioting in the province's history, and in Dublin an angry crowd thronged into Merrion Square and burned the British embassy to the ground, while the Garda Siochana, the Irish police, stood idly by making no attempt to interfere. In the aftermath of "Bloody Sunday," outright warfare erupted between the Provos and the army. The British government, reeling from international condemnation and fearing a bloody civil war, prorogued the Stormont parliament and replaced it with direct rule from Westminster.

In 1972, 467 people died violently in the province, making it the worst year of the troubles. By the end of the decade, when the Pope arrived in Ireland, the death toll had reached the two thousand mark, with an additional twenty thousand injured, many of them severely.


1970 25 -
1971 174 2592
1972 467 4866
1973 250 2651
1974 216 2398
1975 247 2474
1976 297 2729
1977 112 1383
1978 81 985
1979 113 875

Catholic debate

Within days of the Pope's censure of violence, Gerry Adams responded on behalf of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, when he claimed that their actions were "totally in keeping with the traditional Christian teaching on the right to resist oppression. Sinn Fein would welcome clarification as to whether this teaching on the right to resort to legitimate revolt and the right to engage in a just war has been changed."

During the next four years, Dr. Cathal Daly, Bishop of Down and Conor, continued to speak out against violence, and Adams asked him to

"outline the hierarchy's attitude to the injustices of partition. I challenge him to give his views on British occupation; on the methods of pacification and repression deployed by the British government in our country. I call on him to stop condemning the IRA and to apply himself instead to developing solutions to the problems which face us."

The dialogue between Bishop Daly and Adams struck a nerve. Cardinal Tomas O'Fiaich agreed to meet with Adams, and a number of concerned Catholic priests acted as intermediaries between groups on both sides of the border. Through the efforts of Fr. Alec Reid, a Belfast Redemptorist, Adams met with John Hume, leader of the anti-violence Social Democratic and Labour party, the largest Catholic-based party in the North, to discuss a common strategy acceptable to both. Over the next ten years the groundwork was laid for an accord.

In August, 1994, Hume convinced British officials to open a discourse with representatives of Sinn Fein, and the IRA announced a complete cessation of military operations. The long, difficult process of negotiations to effect a peaceful solution was at last underway.

The road ahead was rocky, full of potholes, with a few flat tires and detours along the way, but on Good Friday, April 10th, 1998, the seed planted by the new Polish Pope in an Irish field blossomed into a flower.

Some seeds fell by the wayside . . . . Some fell upon stony places . . . . But others fell upon good ground and brought forth fruit. . . . (Matthew 13:4-9).

Sam Woods, a full-time writer living in Toronto, has just completed a novel, NEXUS, on Northern Ireland.
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Author:Wood, Sam
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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