Hope for Peace in Northern Ireland
By Tony Campolo
Eastern College, St. Davids, PA
Editor's Note: Originally scheduled for the October issue, this article was postponed to be part of the December emphasis. On October 23, 2001, the IRA began destroying its vast military arsenal, in effect declaring its war to evict Britain from Northern Ireland is over, which British Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed as a breakthrough which will put the long-troubled peace process back on track. Tony Campolo's hope is not in vain.
It is easy to become discouraged over the prospects of peace in Northern Ireland in light of the recent resignation of David Trimble, the Nobel Prize winner and voice for moderation in the peace talks. He resigned as Premier of the government at the Storemont, the seat of indigenous government in Northern Ireland, because of the failure of Sinn Fein to get the IRA to keep its promise to disarm. This was one of the conditions that was written into the Good Friday Peace Accord drawn up between the warring parties under the guiding hand of President Bill Clinton. Just prior to Trimble's resignation an election in the United Kingdom increased the representation both in Westminster and at Storemont of those who represented the political right who are opposed to the Peace Accord. Collectively, these events have created a sense of gloom for those who want peace in that troubled part of the world.
I witnessed first hand the intensity of opposition that the right wing of Protestantism is exercising in Northern Ireland in a personal confrontation with Ian Paisley, the notorious member of the British Parliament who represents a section of Northern Ireland where Protestant antagonism toward Catholics is most evident. I had been invited to speak at a Prayer Breakfast at the initiation of peace talks at the Storemont. Attending that meeting would be representatives from the ruling body of the Irish Republic, representatives from the government in Westminster, various mayors and legislators from Northern Ireland, and an array of church leaders, both Catholic and Protestant.
The night before the prayer meeting, I stayed at a hotel just across the road from the magnificent Storemont building. I awoke early in the morning and decided to walk to the prayer meeting. On the way, Ian Paisley, along with some 20-30 young followers, intercepted me. The man is huge and his voice is thunderous. He frightened me as he waved his finger in my face and screamed, "I know who you are! I know who you are! And I know the evil that you are doing!" I was threatened by his ongoing rhetoric against me and against the whole peace process. My only response was, "Reverend Paisley would it be such a bad thing if you came in and joined us and prayed for peace?" He shouted back at me, "I will come into the prayer meeting on the condition that you say these three things: First, that the Pope is the Anti-Christ; second, that the role of Mary in the Catholic Church is idolatry; and third, that the Mass is a pagan celebration." Needless to say, saying such things would hardly contribute to the process of peacemaking between Protestants and Catholics. The only answer I could come up with was, "To tell the truth, Mr. Paisley, I was planning to talk about Jesus."
I encountered still another cause for discouragement when I spoke at a Summer Youth Festival sponsored by the Church of Ireland called "Summer Madness." This annual gathering of young people is marked by enthusiasm for Christ and commitment to the work of the church. Young people come from both North and South Ireland to attend this get-together marked by evangelistic preaching coupled with a strong emphasis on social justice. The conference was held at the same time that the infamous "marches" are held in Portadown, and is within walking distance of that epicenter of Protestant belligerence against Catholics. The newspapers that week gave front page reports of the buildup by the Orangemen and told of resistance forming in the Catholic community through which these extremist Protestants had planned to march on Sunday.
Saturday night, prior to the march, I was scheduled to deliver an address at the plenary session of the festival. There were 3000 young people there longing and praying for peace and reconciliation across religious lines. In the midst of my message to them I gave a call for them to join me the next morning and to march on to Portadown and sit in the road on which the Orangemen would march in their efforts to denigrate their Catholic countrymen. I told these young people that 3000 of us sitting in the road could put an end to the march and make a statement to the rest of the world that the youth of the Church of Ireland wanted to see an end to the marches and wanted peace to reign. The response was negative. "We couldn't do that," they responded. "You don't understand our situation. Praying to end the march is acceptable, but passive resistance is not. There would be implications in such action which would only make matters worse."
Perhaps they were right. I tried to understand their point of view. I suppose that somebody coming in from another societal system with a different set of values cannot get an easy handle on a foreign existential situation. Nevertheless, I felt that their unwillingness to stand up against evil with passive resistance allowed a golden opportunity to stand for Christ to pass. "Praying is not enough!" I told them. But, praying was as far as they would go.
Yet, in spite of political setbacks, angry rhetoric from both the extreme right and the extreme left, and the unwillingness of church people to be pro-active in stopping such offenses as the Protestant marches through Catholic communities, I believe that peace is an inevitability in war torn Ulster. The evidence is everywhere.
The first time I went to Belfast it was an armed camp. The hotel I stayed in was encircled with barbed wire. There were checkpoints every few miles at which young British soldiers with machine guns would stop cars, interrogate the passengers, and search for weapons. Observation towers where soldiers could peer down on citizens and television cameras that observed pedestrians seemed omnipresent. The situation today is very different. The barbed wire is gone. The soldiers are gone. And if you walk around downtown Belfast you would have no idea of how bad things were just ten years ago.
I was first invited to participate in the peace process by the YMCA of Belfast. I was asked to conduct five evangelistic rallies that would cross the religious lines. Both Protestants and Catholics were invited to attend the meetings. Two were held in the Catholic section of the city, two in the Protestant section of the city, and one in the center of Belfast. Tickets were sold for these events and each of them was a sellout. Protestant and Catholic young people rallied together under the banner of Christ. I called people to give themselves to Christ with the full awareness that to do so was to be committed to reconciliation across religious lines. The messages were greeted with enthusiasm and when I gave the invitation for commitment to Christ each night, more than one-tenth of the audience came forward. It was an amazing thing to see Catholic and Protestant young people overcome their differences in a common allegiance to Jesus.
Another experience in reconciliation was at a conference led by a Pentecostal congregation called The City Church. It was held in the south of Ireland, but brought together a couple of thousand Protestants and Catholics who had in common a pentecostal experience. There was good evidence that in Pentecostalism these brothers and sisters had found a common spirit that bound them together. I learned that in Ireland both the Catholic church and the Protestant churches were suspicious of Pentecostalism and treated Pentecostalism as a third religious movement in their country. They were probably right because those who attended the conference let it be known that their Christianity transcended all sectarianism, and that they were finding in the Pentecostal experience a new form of Christianity that cast aside the old forms. Pentecostalism is growing quickly and is creating a religious alternative to the religious dichotomy that has raised such havoc in Ulster.
Next was a series of church meetings in which I used my preaching opportunity to introduce the vision of Millard Fuller's Habitat for Humanity. Scores of people responded and it wasn't long before a Habitat chapter was established in Belfast. What proved most encouraging was that the Habitat movement brought together Catholics and Protestants. They built a series of houses that were next door to each other, and both Protestants and Catholics moved into those houses to live side by side as a testimony to the unity that Christ can bring. If you know anything about Belfast, you know how religiously segregated residential living is. For Habitat houses to defy that segregation proved to be a true sign of the coming Kingdom of God.
A young man by the name of Gareth Higgins is one of the young politicians who is bringing new life to the peace process. Gareth had worked as a missionary in a ministry program I helped to establish in Camden, New Jersey, where his commitment to social justice was enhanced. When he returned to his homeland in Northern Ireland he became a strong advocate for reconciliation. In his efforts, he asked me if I would speak at a rally that would bring Catholics and Protestants together in an outdoor display of Christian unity. He envisioned several thousand young people marching down the main thoroughfares of Belfast declaring their oneness in Christ. In reality, I was sure that Gareth's efforts to bring large numbers of Catholics and Protestants together for such a march and rally would never materialize, but I decided to go out of obligation to a young man who had worked so hard in our ministry programs here in the United States. I was wrong!
The march, which was initiated at the City Hall, drew at least 2000 young people. The group was about evenly divided between Catholics and Protestants. Marching through the heart of Belfast, they sang hymns of praise declaring the oneness that they had in Jesus. People lined the streets and cheered. The march ended in the parking lot outside the Waterfront Auditorium where they sang hymns and gave me a chance to speak. The euphoria was incredible, but in the midst of our outdoor rally we were reminded of the stark realities of the city when a group of Orangemen marched past us disrupting our meeting with the beating of their drums. After the Orangemen passed, we continued on and I had the opportunity to call young people to activism for peace.
Gareth Higgins is committed to utilizing the political process to achieve reconciliation in Ulster. If you knew him, as I do, you would be convinced that he has a future in politics. Perhaps one day he will be able to accomplish what David Trimble tried to do. Perhaps one day he will be one of the key leaders of this troubled part of the world.
In the early part of the 20th Century, hundreds of thousands of Orangemen came to the City Hall in Belfast, lined up and signed in their own blood a covenant in which they committed themselves never to yield to Catholic rule in their land. A few weeks later, hundreds of thousands of Catholics came and signed in their blood another covenant in which they swore never to give up the struggle against what they perceived to be Protestant tyranny. But now, a new generation is rising up and in biblical terminology is writing a new covenant. If you could talk to these young people, you would be convinced that there is nothing in the world that can stop these stouthearted men and women in their quest for peace.