||Ireland is Britain's nearest neighbour. We are bound to it by ties of language, Christian faith and shared history. That history has, to a greater or lesser degree, been painful for eight centuries. Unless some way is found to heal memories, and make possible a fresh beginning, there can be no lasting peace.
In 1992, the IRA exploded a bomb in Warrington, and two little boys were killed. At that time, I pleaded in The lndependent newspaper for a greater understanding of the history of Ireland. I mentioned the enforced settlement there of 'loyal' Protestants from Scotland and England to the detriment or death of the native Irish, and the ferocity which was used to subdue them. I referred to the catastrophe of the great famine as a result of which a million people perished, and the same number were forced to emigrate. I argued that, by neglect of the famine and by other means, before and since, Britain has used the people of Ireland for its own ends. The enforced partition of the island in 1921 was, in effect, 'the last straw'.
I concluded my piece with these words:
"It is a fact of Christian experience, but also true to human psychology, that there can be no reconciliation without sorrow and penitence. That is always costly, and to suggest that one nation or people should apologise to another is to invite accusations of naiveté, lack of patriotism, and capitulation to terrorism. Christians, however, have to understand that repentance and reconciliation are the very heart of the Gospel, and you cannot achieve one without the other."
Ireland is imprisoned by its history and its memories. Both need to be redeemed if reconciliation is to be real. None of us can escape the consequences of our history. We have to live with them, but we can seek to understand it better, and thereby begin to heal personal and social memories. In Ireland, it is for the churches to give a lead in providing the resources of vision and hope, to help people to find a new way forward, so that the poor will no longer cry for justice while the well-off plead for peace.
To suggest that sorrow and penitence offer the best way towards healing the relationship between Britain and Ireland (and other areas of conflict whose roots lie deep in history, viz. South Africa, Israel-Palestine, Bosnia, and for that matter, race relations in Britain and in the USA) is not to imply that all wrong is on one side. But it is to suggest that, for suffering to be redeemed, someone has to make the first move.
Such injustices can hardly be regarded as our fault, yet we cannot escape the consequences. This is true of presentday Germans in relation to the Third Reich, and presentday Liverpool ship-owners in relation to the slave trade. They and we continue to bear the stain of such events. That is why a proper understanding of history is absolutely crucial. Maya Angelou has written:
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
It is a fact of Christian experience that there can be no reconciliation without sorrow and penitence. It is costly,
but the Gospel can never be less than costly. It has as its fount and origin a crucified Messiah, who was yet able to plead,'Father, forgive'.
The plain truth is, if we Christians are not committed to the search for reconciliation in all its costliness, then we have forgotten our calling in a fallen world. If the only way involves sorrow and penitence, then we have to ask, repentance for what? In the context of Ireland, I should have to say - as an Englishman - for the English part in producing centuries of pain there, and for my personal complacency in the face of decades of murder and mayhem. In repenting of all that, I am faced with my need to forgive others for words and evil deeds, but also, and more importantly, to ask for forgiveness for myself and for my country. Repentance which disclaims responsibility is not Christian repentance at all. We are to see our own sins among the sins of the whole world. We are to repent of them, not because they harm us, but because they cause suffering to others, whether we see it or not.
I have used Britain and Ireland as an example of the need to begin to deal with the pain of our history, but each may wish to make particular connections. The then President of West Germany, Richard von Weizsacker, said in 1985, on the 40th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz:
'Whoever closes his eyes to the past becomes blind to the present. Whoever does not wish to remember inhumanity becomes susceptible to the dangers of new infection.'
Sorrow and penitence are the Church's business, but they have a more worldly application. They are valuable in their own right. They provide, in a suffering world, means (and sometimes the only means) to break an inherent pattern of evil, and to make possible new freedom of action. In international affairs, they serve to remind us that politics alone is not enough. In theology we call it the need for redemption. In worldly terms it remains when all else has failed.
Canon Nicholas Frayling, Rector of Liverpool, UK
His book, 'Pardon and Peace, a reflection on the making of peace in Ireland', is published by SPCK at £10.99.