The following is an article I wrote in 1998 about reconciliation efforts in the UK and Ireland. I spent a month and half, just before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, interviewing people who were not involved so much in the political "peace process." Instead, they are individuals who believe God has a better plan for these countries -- and especially for the province of Northern Ireland -- than what we've been seeing there.
Some of the material is a little dated. Sad to say, the situation is still uncertain. On the other hand, though, I believe God is still working there and using folks like those mentioned below to bring a true peace to the situation.
The international community recently has hailed the people of Northern Ireland for taking bold steps toward peace.
Months of talks led to the "Good Friday Agreement" of April 1998, which outlined plans for the dismantling of terrorist arsenals and the development of a special Northern Ireland Assembly with some legislative powers.
Not all is well just yet, however. Some of the members of that Assembly have publicly stated that they are there to wreck it, and in the towns of Northern Ireland violence goes on.
The day before the elections for the Assembly's members, a bomb exploded in the town of Newton-Hamilton, injuring six. The summer "marching season," in which sectarian groups often march through the neighborhoods of people on the other side of the divide, has already been tempestuous. Clearly community conflict -- and indeed outright violence -- has not ended with party leaders signing a piece of paper.
Two especially tragic events happened while I was travelling throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland, within six weeks of the Stormont talks' conclusion. In early March, in a pub in Poyntzpass, County Armagh, a Protestant man had just told his lifelong Catholic friend that he wanted him to be his best man at his wedding, when a paramilitary opened fire in the pub and shot and killed both of them. Later in the month, while the participants in the Stormont talks were being hailed for their steps toward peace, a "breakaway" group attacked an army barracks and forced a whole town in South Armagh to evacuate.
Punishment beatings, in which a group of several "paramilitaries" attack and sometimes kill a single victim, also continued, many of them unreported for fear of further attacks.
The "peace wall" in Belfast is a physical reminder of the "peace" that Northern Irish have had to deal with -- it is not peace at all, but a specific separation between Catholic and Protestant which is meant to decrease violence between them. The wall is a two-storey high cement structure, topped with barbed wire and sometimes corrugated iron, dividing one of Belfast's Catholic neighborhoods from a Protestant one. It is supposed to protect houses on either side from thrown objects -- ranging from stones to grenades -- from one side to the other. Mainly however it demonstrates the clear division between sides, into an "us" and "them" conflict.
Crossmaglen in County Armagh is full of similar reminders. This town, notorious for past conflicts between Republicans and the British army, is full of pro-IRA signs... and of armed soldiers. At one point during my time there, in the midst of the weekly market in the town square, two soldiers slowly circled the bus full of secondhand clothing in which I stood, carefully checking under the bus and around it for any signs of
mischief. Helicopters, meanwhile, circled above.
Helicopters watching from the skies are a grim constant in the lives of most Northern Irish city dwellers. One lady told me a story about a mother in Belfast who saw boys throwing stones over the peace wall. She called the police, asking for them to put a stop to this since her children would be coming out of school soon and she feared for their safety. The police promised to take care of it, but fifteen minutes later the stones were still coming over the wall. The mother called again demanding an explanation, and the officer on the phone told her not to worry because "the man upstairs" was taking care of it. "Do you mean God?" the lady asked. The officer explained that no, he did not mean God, he meant the man in a helicopter above, watching and ready with his megaphone -- and guns -- if need be.
The lady who told me this story, Margaret Walker, sees it as a humorous story. Humor, she says, is a way for people to deal with the difficulties which surround them. Walker is involved in a more lasting way of coping, however. She is one of several who lead prayer groups in which both Protestants and
Catholics agree together in the name of one Lord.
A New Identity
Church leaders and individual Christians in Northern Ireland are actively pursuing peace, not as a political ideal, but as a spiritual imperative. Their attitudes toward governmental peace-politics range from optimistic to skeptical, but their attitudes toward what they see God doing in the province are consistently jubilant. Rather than identifying themselves with denominational or political divisions, they are finding a new identity as one body in the Lord.
"We don't need to fit into Nationalism or Loyalism; our identity in God is too big for that," says Douglas Heffernan, a church elder in Cork, in the Republic of Ireland. "We can't say that being Catholic or being Protestant, or being from the North or the South, or being Nationalist or Loyalist, can define us as Irish people."
Irishman Diarmuid O'Neill, currently working with Go To the Nations in England and developing an international intercessory prayer network for Ireland, agrees. "When Christ makes us new we take on his identity and his kingdom, rather than, 'I am a Nationalist, therefore...' or, 'I am an Orangeman, therefore....' Our identity is too often based on a feeling that we must defend ourselves from threats. St. Patrick was treated horribly by the Irish, but he was Christ-centred, and that rather than fear was his identity."
Dennis Wrigley, an Englishman and founder of the Maranatha Community based in Manchester, claims that "Churches need to answer one question: Who does Ireland belong to? The truth is that Ireland belongs to God, not to the Nationalists or Unionists."
People from England with whom I spoke see the root problem of division as being a nationalistic one, between Ireland and England. People in the Republic of Ireland view the division as a North / South split, between Irish people. And many of those in Northern Ireland believe that the primary division is an inherited Catholic / Protestant split, from which political fears and demands spring. Regardless of their perception of the cause of division, however, believers from all the backgrounds and nations involved know that the only way for healing is through God knitting people's hearts together.
"There's no intellectual argument, there's no political settlement, without a seed change in the hearts and the minds of the people. Only God can do that," says Tony Black, co-founder of the UK-Ireland Revival Network, who is currently working with John Arnott and Wes Campbell as Director of the International Revival Network. Black, having grown up in England and now living in Scotland, recognizes that the British have a duty toward Ireland. "We're there to serve -- to help, encourage, and to bring in ministries and resources."
Many Northern Irish Christians see the servanthood of English people as vital. Ian Bothwell, founder and director of Crossfire Trust in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, says, "Perhaps England's intention in ruling Ireland was good, but we in Ireland have ended up with bad attitudes and a lack of trust toward the English. So I find it very helpful and positive to have English people come as servants. Servanthood is the key, and it takes courage."
The Maranatha Community has such a service mission to Northern Ireland. Four times a year, Maranatha sends a group to Northern Ireland, to meet with people ranging from parish priests and Protestant ministers to families and political leaders. Wrigley says that Maranatha's purpose in Northern Ireland is "to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn."
"We cannot talk about a gospel of reconciliation if we are not reconciled with one another," continues Wrigley. "Every one of us needs to bring to God the unfinished business and let him give us the power to forgive."
Northern Ireland is beginning to see this forgiveness in action. For example, people from each denomination often gather in prayer. "There's a great deal said about dialogue and talking, but two people talking across a table will find something to argue about pretty soon. Get the same two people facing the same direction, on their knees before God, and they will be one," explains Wrigley. "It's been a joy to see a great deal of that."
Many believe that, as churches answer the question of "Who does Ireland belong to?" God will restore the fortunes of Ireland and Northern Ireland, making it an example of peace and reconciliation to the rest of the world. Heffernan believes that "God has a plan to reintroduce us to the world, no more on a negative political level, but on a positive spiritual one."
David Bleakley, author of Peace in Ireland: One nation, two peoples and advisor to the Prime Minister during the Stormont talks, says that "Ireland has the opportunity to be an example to the nations. If we can bring peace, that will bring encouragement. However if we fail, then people will look and say, 'Well, if they can't do it in Holy Ireland, where can there be peace?'"
Says Bothwell, "My dream is for nations coming to learn of our peaceful methods and to taste our sweetness. New leaders are appearing. At the moment they are nobodies, they don't have large congregations, but they are winning the people's hearts, and earning the right to speak. Their voice will be heard."
In the Crossfire
Bothwell himself is one of those leaders. For nearly two decades he has been living and working in South Armagh, a "hot spot" along Northern Ireland's border with the Republic of Ireland. The area is mostly Republican, and many (especially Protestants) avoid it because of the reputation it has acquired from its violent past.
But in 1979, Bothwell saw a television program about Crossmaglen, one of the toughest towns in South Armagh. "It was just an idea, a vision, a calling," says Bothwell. "For something to grow out of that is really amazing."
Something has grown out of it: an organization called Crossfire Trust, which for 19 years has been sharing the gospel and a peaceful way of life with the people of Crossmaglen. Crossfire holds regular meetings in Crossmaglen with the barbed-wired army barracks, the Sinn Fein office, the "Brits Out" signs, and hovering surveillance helicopters all close by. People for miles around instantly recognize Crossfire's big red bus, which goes every weekend to towns on both sides of the border to meet over tea and coffee with whomever wishes to talk.
"The message of Jesus needs to be simple and truthful, accompanied by acts of kindness. That's where [Crossfire's secondhand clothing store] Worn Again, and practical help to people, come in. The gospel must be accompanied by gestures and statements of reconciliation, so that people understand what they're seeing," says Bothwell. Now, he says, "God seems to be putting the lonely and the hurt within this family."
Bothwell is from a Protestant, Orange background, but no longer considers himself a Protestant.
"Before I knew it, the baby boy that I was became Protestant, and the orange banner string was put in my hand. The school system kept me apart from Catholic neighbors, except when I wanted to fight with them." Both Catholic and Protestant schoolchildren "wore horrible school uniforms, but somehow you start to hate the other uniform. That continues from students to soldiers: you don't like the uniform and what it stands for.
"After two years at an English Bible college, I just called myself a Christian, and dropped denomination and the Protestant image. Finding identity in Christ, the King of kings, instead of the king of Ulster, was a fresh revelation for me, but it led to some misunderstanding. People are quite happy to be Catholic or Protestant, but not to fit into either box makes people wonder who you are. But my identity daily is in Jesus."
Bothwell's vision for the future, and pleas to his countrymen, are representative of those of many Christians within Northern Ireland: "We need to know the wounds, and we need to know how to clean out those wounds: to speak to the wound with forgiveness; acknowledge that it happened; and, if we can represent any people groups, express repentance and forgiveness.
"Reconciliation here has often become too polite. European money, donated for peace and reconciliation, is instead producing tolerance. People are willing to put up with one another for a 60,000-pound grant. This may be better than nothing but it's not going to heal our wounds. We have to open up, not cover up and pretend nothing wrong has happened.
"I am more excited for peace when people are repenting and forsaking old attitudes. The Troubles have produced a way of life, financial security, image and identity. The very thought of losing this makes people feel insecure. We have to relearn how to live."
In Crossmaglen, some are doing just that. One Englishwoman has left her life in England to live in South Armagh, working with Crossfire to serve those who automatically see anyone English as the hated enemy. A former IRA man, who was shot in both legs some years ago, is now Bothwell's "right-hand man" and Crossfire's bus driver. And a man who once painted some of the provocative IRA signs which decorate Crossmaglen, recently turned his skills to painting new designs for the sides of Crossfire's camping trailer.
Still, relearning how to live is no small task, when bitterness and fear have developed so strongly throughout the last few hundred years. "The battle we are fighting here," says Dennis Wrigley, "is not political; it is spiritual." The problems crime and violence in the housing estates are demonic strongholds, believes Wrigley, as are many of the political resistances to peace.
The political parties have recently signed an agreement in Stormont, which will supposedly halt the violence. However, if a spiritual problem requires a spiritual solution, political accords are not enough, according to church leaders throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland.
"There's a wound that has been here for years and has never been cleaned. It won't be put right overnight unless there is a miraculous action by God," says Henry Wattis, an English pastor near Birmingham, England, who has been working closely with an Irish Catholic community in his area and has been extensively involved in intercession and networking for reconciliation in Ireland. "If the church of God can't reconcile, then the politicians certainly can't."
Tony Black says that believers outside of Ireland must recognize "the need for prayer, serious intercession." Some organizations are working toward just that. Diarmuid O'Neill is working with Brazilian Amaury Braga to set up a worldwide intercessory network for Ireland. "We need to pray for people to humble themselves, for God's mercy to be poured out, and that God will humble our leaders so that they can come up with new and creative ways to bring reconciliation."
O'Neill's personal history is an example of what the Lord is doing in the hearts and minds of people throughout Northern and Southern Ireland. O'Neill is from the South, and grew up in the Catholic tradition. From a young age he had determined that he wanted to show Irish people what is good about their country, to encourage a positive rather than negative Irish self-image. "I'd seen a negative identity and an inferiority complex, and I wanted to use my life to make the Irish recognise the beautiful things that they had, without making themselves feel superior."
Shortly after becoming a committed Christian, O'Neill met Roger Mitchell, an Englishman working in Irish reconciliation. "He was the first English person who said to me, 'We need to ask the Irish for forgiveness.' I actually prayed that he wouldn't ask my forgiveness, because I knew that I wasn't ready to give it. It took me another eight months to get to a place where I could forgive sincerely in my heart."
The people of the South, he says, are guilty of "arrogance; we have to admit that we don't have all the answers for Northern Ireland, and humble ourselves, because God promises that if we humble ourselves, he heals.
"God is going to call a lot of people out of their comfort zones, me included, to do like Patrick did and to go back to where we don't want to come." St. Patrick had been a slave, badly mistreated, when he first came to Ireland, and yet at God's call, he was willing to go back to Ireland and preach the gospel, O'Neill explains.
Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, and Irish Christians draw inspiration from Patrick's life, and the lives of many Irish monks. Douglas Heffernan, currently studying Celtic Studies in Cork, is delving deep into the history of the Celtic church and exploring the roots of Ireland's positive spiritual identity. "The background of Catholic and Protestant in Ireland is the same Celtic background," he says. "It goes beyond the Troubles, beyond the memory of British invasion. I call it the Celtic memory, and it's a unifying force, a common root. It is part of the new identity that God is forming for us."
Says O'Neill, "Satan comes strongest against people when God wants to do something important. For centuries Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales have been kept apart... because their unity will be immensely powerful."
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