Christians unite in sorrow over century of Irish divisions

The Christian leaders of Ireland offered U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the island’s bickering politicians a tough sermon Thursday – that they all had fostered needless divisions and must heal wounds deepened by a century of partition.

The ecumenical service at the Church of Ireland cathedral in Armagh was billed as a neutral “reflection” on the island’s division into a British north and independent south a century ago amid guerrilla warfare in the south and rising sectarian bloodshed in Belfast.

Though the ceremony was organized jointly by Ireland’s senior Catholic and Protestant leaders, Irish President Michael D. Higgins triggered a diplomatic furore by rejecting his invitation amid claims that it would be partisan and pro-British.

That position never appeared more ill-informed than during a somber ceremony featuring expressions of regret over past failures and calls for unity now between communities and across the island.

Aided by bands of local children – drawn from Northern Ireland’s predominantly Protestant state schools, Catholic schools and deliberately “integrated” schools – the leaders of the Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican and Methodist churches stood side by side to express their own churches’ share of responsibility for sowing a century of sorrows.

“For the past 100 years, partition has polarized people on this island. It has institutionalized difference, and it remains a symbol of political, cultural and religious division between our communities,” said Catholic Archbishop Eamon Martin, whose overwhelmingly Irish nationalist flock seeks an end to partition.

He recalled, as a boy growing up in Northern Ireland’s second-largest city of Londonderry – just Derry to nationalists – visiting relatives across a nearby border marked first by customs posts, then by British army bases. Such installations were finally demolished following the Provisional IRA’s 1997 cease-fire and 2005 disarmament.

The three Protestant leaders, whose churches, like the Catholics, never recognized partition and maintain all-Ireland structures, said they had taken too few risks during three decades of bloodshed over Northern Ireland and the two most recent decades of relative peace.

“I grieve the times when fear has held us back from building relationships,” said the Presbyterian moderator, David Bruce.

“I am sorry that as disciples of Jesus Christ we didn’t do more to be peacemakers,” said Church of Ireland Archbishop John McDowell, who took a sideways jab at current U.K. efforts to retreat from the Northern Ireland trade protocol as well as Irish nationalists’ desire to overpower British unionist objections to an all-Ireland state.

“We obsessed about some things, especially borders. We are obsessing about them again, and being distracted from really thinking about what a good society would look like,” McDowell said.

“There are already signs that the next generation will see the things that we obsessed about as secondary and place their priorities elsewhere,” he said, citing those greater challenges as “climate change and economic inequality that can only be tackled together.”

The Irish Methodists’ Sierra Leone-born president, Sahr Yambasu, offered the most pointed critique of partition and Britain’s imperial past.

Yambasu, who studied in Belfast and settled in the Republic of Ireland in 1995, said he came from a land whose citizens once “were bought and sold and used for profit” by colonial powers that recklessly partitioned Africa.

He said Thursday’s ceremony provided “an opportunity to lament, to say sorry, to imagine what could be, and to choose the way forward that can be mutually beneficial.”

Johnson, who didn’t speak at the service or to journalists outside, heard the preachers’ calls for unity from the second pew alongside the U.K.’s Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and Northern Ireland’s First Minister Paul Givan, a Democratic Unionist and ardent critic of the trade protocol.

The front pew on the Irish side was empty because of Higgins’ non-attendance. The Irish government, embarrassed by the head of state’s surprise move, sent Foreign Minister Simon Coveney and chief whip Jack Chambers.

While Queen Elizabeth II withdrew from attendance Wednesday citing ill health, the royal family was represented up front by the Earl of Caledon, whose forebears have held an Irish peerage since 1800 rooted in Tyrone, today one of Northern Ireland’s border counties.

All local parties sent their leaders except Sinn Féin, which helps to govern Northern Ireland as part of its power-sharing government but seeks the U.K. region’s eventual absorption into the Republic next door.

Sinn Féin’s northern leader, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, had derided the church ceremony as a “celebration” of partition. She responded to the event with a three-word tweet: “Make partition history.”



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