A Miracle (July/Aug 2007)

Friday, 01 April 2011 18:02

Openmind July/August 2007

A Miracle in Northern Ireland

I still can't believe that I've seen Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams sitting down together and agreeing to share power in Northern Ireland. Some years ago Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and their colleagues in Sinn Fein saw that that they had to exchange the gun for the ballot box, but Ian Paisley wouldn't budge an inch until Sinn Fein IRA, as he always called them, admitted defeat and publicly repented of their sins. I was very familiar with this degree of intransigence. I'd been brought up in the Presbyterian Church and, though members of my family were not great church-goers, most of them, particularly on my mother's side, had that Presbyterian ability to believe that they were absolutely right, and that compromise and reconciliation were signs of weakness, not strength. They also shared Paisley's views about the utter wickedness of the Catholic Church.

The Australia I grew up in before and during World War Two, was, like Northern Ireland, divided into Catholics and Protestants. Catholic children went to Catholic schools: Protestant children went to state schools. Outside of school, each group hurled abuse at one another and never met to play together. Catholic and Protestant adults socialised quite separately. However, Catholics were not discriminated against economically as they were in Northern Ireland, and so the battles between the two groups were conducted socially and politically, and not with guns and bombs. During the war the Australian Federal government, wanting to increase the size of the population, created an immigrant programme which meant that by the 1960s the Catholic schools were bursting at the seams with the children of Catholic migrants. The Church relaxed the rules which banned Catholic parents from sending their children to state schools, and within a few short years the enmity and division between Catholics and Protestants vanished.

When I arrived in England in 1968 the Troubles in Northern Ireland were just beginning. On my visits to Northern Ireland I found myself dusting off some old skills that I'd learnt as a child. Brought up a Protestant, I was taught how to recognise a Catholic in the first moments of meeting - the name, the school, the number of children in the family. I heard again the same hate-filled mythologies, the ones espoused by the Protestants about the Catholics, and the ones espoused by the Catholics about the Protestants, only now I knew them to be the same set of ideas with which all groups define their enemies. Enemies, whoever they may be, are always dirty, aggressive, lying, greedy, cruel and totally selfish, while your group, whatever it is, is always clean, unaggressive, truthful, generous, kind and totally unselfish. (George Bush applies these same sets of terms to terrorists and to the American People).

Members of a religious faith usually see themselves as being superior to those who don't share their beliefs. Many Presbyterians have the same attitude towards their ideas, all of which they see as being incontrovertible. Such people are untroubled by doubt. Indeed, they cannot afford to doubt because to them to doubt was to give way to a weakness which would overwhelm and destroy them. Whenever I heard Paisley holding forth about how wicked the Catholics were and how he would never exchange a word with Adams or McGuinness I felt that nothing would change in Northern Ireland until Paisley departed this life and went to heaven where he would spend eternity instructing God.

What I didn't know then but I know now is how much most people change when they are in their late seventies. (Paisley is 80.) So many things no longer matter. You might have spent your adult life putting on a front of being strong and uncompromising, but now it doesn't matter anymore. At the same time you see some things mattering even more. Surveying the huge sweep of time that you've lived, you see that living is more important than dying, and that people are people the world over. The differences between different groups of people don't make one group superior to the other. Ian Paisley mightn't express the changes in his own thinking in the way I've described them here, but these changes have allowed him to discover that compromise and reconciliation are not weaknesses but strengths. Now he can say 'Yes' where before he would say only 'No'.

However, Ian Paisley may have changed, and the people of Northern Ireland may now be governing themselves, but one thing hasn't changed. Unlike Australia, the Catholic children still go to their Catholic schools and the Protestant children go to their Protestant schools. A mere 5 per cent of children go to schools which take children from any religion. Has Ian Paisley brought lasting peace, or is this just a lull in the storm?

Dorothy Rowe Friends and Enemies HarperCollins.


Dorothy Rowe My Dearest Enemy, My Dangerous Friend: The Making and Breaking of Sibling Bonds Routledge