10 March 2009

Evil in Northern Ireland

Christ in Agony on the Cross, El Greco

When I saw the headlines about the Antrim murders the other night I felt sick at heart. Two pizza delivery men, a 19-year-old local man, Anthony Watson, and a 32-year-old Polish man, not yet named, both seriously wounded, were described by an anonymous spokesman for the cowards who shot them as ‘collaborating with the British by servicing them’. The brave ‘soldiers’ of the Real IRA (Irish Republican Army) stood over the two unarmed, wounded British soldiers, Sapper Patrick Azimkar, 21, and Sapper Mark Quinsey, 23, and finished them off.

Today’s news tells of a policeman, not yet named, being murdered in Craigavon, Northern Ireland.

Only once in my life as a priest have I been seriously tempted to punch someone – I’ve often enough felt like doing that, a different matter – and that was on a picnic with members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) in the New York area during the summer of 1982 when I helped in a parish after a year’s study in Toronto. I had been in the same parish the previous summer.

On 20 July 1982 the Provisional IRA murdered three cavalry men during the Changing of the Guard near Buckingham Palace, London. Many others, including spectators, were injured and some horses were also killed. At the same time a bomb exploded under a bandstand in Regent’s Park, London, killing seven bandsmen, members of the British Army, and injured many spectators.

None of the soldiers killed in these incidents were armed. Both groups were entertaining people.

One of those on the picnic I attended – my only ever involvement with the AOH, an innocuous group in Ireland itself – was a major in the US Army and a teacher at West Point Academy. He was of Irish origin. Yet he justified the murders of the cavalrymen and the bandsmen. He was totally beyond reason. He had no problem with terrorists murdering unarmed soldiers of a country that the USA claims to have a special relationship with. He seemed to be oblivious of the fact that the Republic of Ireland has its own legitimate Defence Forces, a body with an honourable record of peacekeeping with the UN. The IRA, whether ‘Official, ‘Provisional’, ‘Real’ or ‘Continuity’, has never had a mandate from Irish voters.

Though the ‘discussion’ between the off-duty US Army major and I was very heated, we didn’t come to blows. That would have been a contradiction of my position. Before going home I offered him my hand and he accepted it.

Back in 1976, when I was on my first visit home from the Philippines, I mentioned in a homily in my parish church in Dublin at Sunday Mass that a temple of the Holy Spirit had been murdered that week in Northern Ireland, a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), as the police there were then known. They are now called the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). He had been killed by the IRA, the ‘Provisional’ variety, I think. A middle-aged man stood up and asked in a loud voice ‘Are we here to listen to the gospel or a political speech’. He then sat down.

Though I was stunned I continued and during the Prayers of the Faithful prayed for the policeman who had been murdered that week.

I remember the night of Holy Thursday 1998 very well. I was chaplain to a national youth camp of the Teresian Association in Malaybalay, Bukidnon, in Mindanao, here in the Philippines. I was listening as often as I could to the BBC World Service on my little Sony radio to get the latest news of the critical peace talks in Stormont, Belfast, and asking the young people to pray for the success of the talks. It was a great gift from God when the parties finally reached agreement in the early hours of Good Friday, beyond their stated deadline.

Incidentally, the violence here in the Philippines has always been much worse than in Northern Ireland since I came here in 1971. During the Marcos dictatorship every single incident in Northern Ireland was reported in the Manila papers but the atrocities here in the Philippines itself weren’t.

I hope that the Antrim and Craigavon murders were isolated incidents. But it’s hard to cope with raw evil and utter cowardice, both of which were very evident on Saturday night. Yet some of those involved in the worst atrocities in Northern Ireland have gone through a conversion experience and have found the Christian faith and gone on to work for peace.

I am happy to report that the AOH has unequivocally condemned Saturday’s murders.

The leaders of the four main Christian bodies, each of which is an all-Ireland organization, have issued a joint statement, reported in the Belfast Telegraph, in which they said, ‘The brutal murder of two soldiers and injuring of others including civilians at Massereene is a shocking development which is an attack on our whole community.

‘It takes us back to events which we thought we had left in the past and is a dangerous attempt to destabilise the peace process which must not be allowed to succeed.’

The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference also issued a statement of condemnation .

It is worth pointing out that during the years of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland the media persisted in using the terms ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants; inaccurately. The conflict had nothing whatever to do with theology, though its roots lie in the political consequences of the Protestant Reformation. Genuine Catholics and Protestants, including the leaders of the four main Christian bodies, were praying and working together for peace during those years.
Clearly, we need to continue praying.


Fr Seán Coyle said...

Sam McBride The Newsletter (Belfast) used this on 1 April: http://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/Priest-39wanted-to-punch-US.5127690.jp . thank you, Sam!

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