A few months ago in a Facebook entry by Jonny Clarke (Youth With A Mission, Ireland), he spoke of an interview he had with Seamus Mallon (the first deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland from 1998 – 2001; Deputy Leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party from 1979 – 2001) and Eugene Reavey (who had three brothers murdered by Protestant paramilitaries in 1976):
“When I asked him (Seamus Mallon) about how we should deal with hurt that goes back ten years or one hundred years he pointed at the wall behind us … “Four hundred years”! He said that wall was part of the first Protestant plantation in County Armagh in 1610. During the plantation of Ulster in the 1600’s, thousands of Scottish Protestants were encouraged to move over to Ulster and take up land, to build churches and start a new life. Of course, the Irish Catholic inhabitants were forbidden from owning land, were fined for not attending Anglican Church services, were unable to vote and faced many other restrictions collectively referred to as the Penal Laws … So, in this country we don’t have a short history of violence, but a long, sordid journey of death and retaliation. There is no hierarchy of victims, and violence affected all sides in our conflict.”
In another Facebook entry, Jonny directed us to a Slugger O’Toole* article written by Claire Mitchell. He described it as “A great piece of writing on the stuttering N Irish peace process. The continual insistence of people here to vote for the same old tired, sectarian parties is inexplicable.” It was that last word that caught my attention – “inexplicable.”
Claire Mitchell wrote:
“But between … making no institutional space for neithers, failing to look after victims or to have any catharsis, not following through on the Agreement’s promises, abusing community vetoes, it’s all gone quite wrong. It’s turned into a nasty fight. With many unionists fighting a psychological battle against Irish culture as a proxy for Sinn Féin and their own past pain … And many nationalists despairing that unionists will ever be able to grasp their perspective, because the DUP have so rarely had ears to hear the pain of nationalists or republicans and seem in no hurry to enact the equality that was voted for.
As a result, we’d vote for polarisation again tomorrow … All that said, I’m actually not depressed about the future of this place. Not about us, the people. As far as I can see we’re lashing on with life. Most of us are getting on with each other pretty well. We’re making lemonade. There is no will to go back to violence.”
It was the last sentence here, that caught my attention!
Two images …
Over Christmas and the New Year, I was reading Jim Wallis’ book “America’s Original Sin – Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America.” In the Chapter entitled, Welcoming the Stranger, my attention was drawn to two short sentences, “Our politics is stuck.” and “And stuck politics hurts people.” He could as easily have been making the observation about the political deadlock in the Northern Ireland Assembly and its decision-making process (or lack of it!), which has been stuck for the last 15 months! Most certainly people on all sides of the political spectrum are feeling the pain of it!
A few nights later, I awoke with two images clearly to the forefront of my mind. One was an image God gave me not long after the initial formation of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998; it was of two groups of people trying to force together the positive poles of two large magnets with the inevitable happening – they reached a point where they started to repel each other! The people were clearly identified as the British and Irish Governments and the two magnets not only represented the two main political Parties here in Northern Ireland – the Democratic Unionist Part and Sinn Fein – but also the two covenants made in 1912 and 1916 respectively. I sensed that God was saying with regards to the NI Assembly that both parties were looking for two completely opposite outcomes from the political process and that their political aspirations were enshrined in covenant. As a consequence, because they were covenanted against each other, the Assembly would always have the potential of collapsing. We have been there a few times over the years and we are there again!
The second image also goes back to that period. It was a cartoon, I think in the Belfast Telegraph, in which the artist had drawn a cage. In it were two rats – a Nationalist rat and a Unionist rat. Both were clearly showing signs of aggression towards each other. Attached to various points on each rat were a series of strings which ran upwards and out of the top of the cage. These strings were attached to what were clearly a pair of sinister hands. The message was clear to me – both of these rats were being manipulated by the same force, a demonic force. Whether the cartoonist realized it or not, this was and continues to be a very powerful prophetic image. As, indeed, both of these images are.
I lay on my bed for approximately two hours that night, grappling with what was brought before me. I am so aware that while we desperately need a political solution, the problems that overshadow our land have deep historical and spiritual roots. Northern Ireland was born out of the actions of two people groups in a counter-covenantal relationship – both covenants invoked the name of God. The Protestant, Ulster Covenant, was initiated by the three main Protestant Churches (Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist). In many sermons and political speeches their hatred and fear of Roman Catholicism was used as a means of unifying nearly 250,000 men into the signing of the Covenant – an act of rebellion against the British Governments Home Rule Bill. It was based on the Solemn League and Covenant of 1638, which had also been used in Scottish Presbyterianism to united them politically and spiritually against the British Crown and Parliament.
In the Irish Nationalist covenant of Easter 1916, Padraig Pearce invoked the names of Christ and the goddess Eire, calling upon people to sacrificially lay down their lives for the salvation of Ireland – i.e., Irish separation from British Rule. In 1922 this was only partly realized – the political and armed struggle since the late 1960’s is for the fulfilment of their covenantal aspirations, a 32 county Ireland!
What we have in the polarized society of Northern Ireland are two expressions of nationalism – nationalist and unionist. Both are idolatrous!
What saddens me most is that the Church should be an integral part of God’s answer to the problems we are facing. In Ephesians 3: 10-11 we read, “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
These “rulers and authorities” are mentioned again in Ephesians 6:12, where they are seen as having a part to play in Satan’s governmental structure – a means of seeking to undermine God’s reign and rule through the Church. The implication of the verses in Chapter 3, is that the Church should be making it abundantly clear to the “rulers and authorities,” that Christ has overcome them through his death of the cross.
We, the Church, have the power to cut those strings attached to the rats in the cartoon, instead we are empowering the hands that manipulate them! Paul tells us that we are not to be ignorant of Satan’s schemes. Sadly, we have been and because of this we are blinded by the cultural, historic “strongholds” which cause us to see ‘our’ history as right and the ‘others’ as wrong! We “rarely had ears to hear the pain of nationalists or republicans.” Or, vice-versa!
I constantly hear prayers being said for the politicians and the political process, but I rarely hear a prayer for the Church leadership to boldly rise up and prophetically lead the way – in renouncing and repenting of the wrongs of initiating the Ulster Covenant in 1912 and the ensuing consequences.
The Covenants of 1912 and 1916 are most certainly not the starting point. They came out of centuries of history in this island and out of its relationship with England – even further back than the times Seamus Mallon mentioned! For instance, when William the Conqueror was given England by a Papal Bull (1066), the spirit of Empire was set into the political, legal and spiritual foundations of these islands. When by a further Papal Bull – the Laudibiliter – the Celtic Church in Ireland was brought under the authority of the English Roman Catholic Church (1155), another dynamic was set in place. The Reformation was only set to intensify the tensions already established between England and Ireland – the influences of the Crown, the Anglican Church, the Puritan Cromwell and the Ulster-Scots plantation of Ulster.
Back to the word “inexplicable”.
For me it only appears that way, if we don’t take into consideration the nature of the spiritual conflict that is being played out in these islands. Ever since sin entered into the world and Satan was removed from God’s presence, he has sought to get his revenge, to destroy God’s redemptive purpose for mankind through attacking that which is closest to God’s heart – covenant relationship! Time and time again throughout history Satan has used the dynamics of wrong covenants, using deity and nationalism to deadly effect in turning people groups against each other. I don’t expect the non-Christian world to understand the spiritual language of the Bible e.g. “principalities and powers” etc., but it amazes me that so many Christians including many of the churches leadership, don’t appear to either!
And “There is no will to go back to violence.”
In recent history, one only has to look at the genocides in Balkans and Rwanda – where literally overnight, neighbour murderously rose up against neighbour. Major players in the International Reconciliation movement have clearly pointed out to me that they had the same potent mix that we have: nationalism, land disputes and deity (believing that God is on our side). Thank God we have not known genocide here. But, in their words, it only requires a trigger! With the increasing secularization of society and the marked changes in demographics, Unionism is clearly feeling threatened and insecure. What could happen if a Border Poll went against them? In Satan’s hands, it is not unimaginable for a trigger to be pulled!
We need as the Church in Ireland to be in prayer. Along with that, we need to see a prophetic leadership rising up to address the role the Protestant Church played in putting in place the Ulster Covenant in 1912 and to lead us into a new expression of Church in Ireland, a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
*Slugger O’Toole is an award-winning news and opinion portal, which takes a critical look at various strands of political politics in Ireland and Britain.