Joe Parker is an Irish-born Anglican clergyman who from 1962 worked with The Mission to Seamen in Belfast. Ten years later, his fourteen-year-old son Stephen was one of eleven people killed when a car bomb exploded in a shopping center. Stephen had correctly guessed the car’s lethal load and tried to warn people. He was posthumously awarded the queen’s commendation for gallantry.
His father had a billboard erected in the city center, showing the number of casualties since trouble erupted in 1969. Several times a week he updated it; recently the grim total showed 1,136 dead, more than 11,000 injured. Underneath was the inscription: “No Cause Can Justify This.”
Joe Parker helped found the Witness for Peace Movement, now comprising 40,000 people who want to end the violence. His life has been threatened through letters and telephone calls. “Some people,” he says, “don’t have to take a gun or plant a bomb to keep the cauldron of hate boiling. Some culprits sit in the front pews of churches every week.”
He has forgiven those who killed his son, and testifies that his faith has been strengthened. But he can no longer live with the hatred of those who cannot forgive. He has taken a post with his Mission in Vancouver, and with his wife and family is sadly preparing to leave his native island.
To write about Northern Ireland is a sure way of escaping the woes destined for those of whom all men shall speak well. I return to the subject with the utmost reluctance. During a recent six-week stay in the United States, I was appalled by the anti-British slant of television news items about Northern Ireland.
Apart from the sizable segment of the electorate that is Irish-Catholic in origin, Americans generally are not very clear about what is going on in those six counties of the Emerald Isle that remain stubbornly British. There is a certain imprecision about the sort of banner headline I saw recently in Pasadena: “ENGLAND OUT OF IRELAND.” In the Sunday-morning service of one of the country’s largest Presbyterian churches, the pastor said that the headquarters of his denomination had sent a request for prayer for Northern Ireland. Then he went on to say: “There is a battle going on there between Presbyterians and Roman Catholics.” I groaned inwardly and scribbled a brief note to the pastor in the hope that he would reword the announcement for the main service an hour later. Either he didn’t get my note or he knows something I don’t, for he repeated the wording next time round.
Two comments are called for. First, Presbyterians are a minority of the total Protestant representation in the province. Even more important, however, we cannot understand Northern Ireland by simplistically reducing it to a religious war. Visits to the devastated areas of Belfast and Londonderry will confirm irrefutably that holiness has nothing to do with it.
Two books on Northern Ireland have come my way recently. One is The Bitter Harvest: Church and State in Northern Ireland, by Albert J. Menendez (Luce, 228 pp., $7.50), assistant editor of Church and State magazine. His book is packed full of revealing statistics. He shows how unpromising here is the ground for the planting of nonsectarian, liberal attitudes. Menendez is convinced that the “intensely discriminatory penal laws” against Catholics before 1793 so strengthened that church’s position that Irishness and Catholicism became synonymous, and Rome became identified with the cause of Irish freedom and independence.
On the other hand, he discusses the dwindling Protestant population of the Irish Republic, from 313,049 in 1911 to 130,126 in 1971—a factor closely connected with Rome’s attitude toward such matters as intermarriage, divorce, birth control, and abortion.
He quotes Joseph O’Connor of the United Ireland Publicity Committee (in America): “We are using every method possible to wage a full-scale civil war in the six northern counties.” Substantial amounts of money and arms reach Ireland from America—a country (Menendez did not say this) outraged when another major power tried to interfere in its sphere of influence in Cuba. This puzzles me: does it mean that it’s all right if your friends are the offenders, but not if your enemies are?
Menendez is right in pointing out that Protestant bigotry is more virulent and sustained than Catholic. His book reproduces many pamphlets, diatribes, and songs in support of this view. Some of them are positively hair-raising. No comment is given. No comment is needed.
The second book is Northern Ireland: Captive of History, by Gary MacEoin (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 338 pp., $10). A distinguished journalist and scholar who was born into a Catholic family in the Republic, MacEoin too is concerned to expose some of the myths that “become an element of misunderstanding.” He sees Irish Catholicism as little touched by the spirit of Pope John and appreciates the Protestant’s determination to have no part of it.
His book is more historically oriented than the other, and he is surefooted in guiding the reader through the intricacies of Irish politics. He is under no illusion about IRA brutality, but he is concerned also to detail the frightening implications of the Special Powers Act by which a detainee can be held indefinitely. “The police do not even have to reveal the fact that they hold him for forty-eight hours, and during that time he can be interrogated without the right to a lawyer.”
MacEoin, with some qualification, holds the Protestant community responsible for continuing injustices. Because Britain and the Republic are part of the problem, they cannot provide the solution. He would like to see cantonization after the Swiss model (the Turks’ original preference for Cyprus); this, he feels, would provide the necessary new factor in the situation.
Meanwhile this is still a fiercely Protestant province notably lacking in the fruits of the Spirit, a place where one’s opponent is not only wrong but damned, and where approved behavior and hatred are often in bizarre affinity. And yet—how many of us could stand proud under the glare of international searchlights? I for one am grateful and relieved that the world does not know all, and humbled that there are people in Northern Ireland who pray for me.
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