Leadership in North is not just about politicians

Many in churches have disengaged from practical work of reconciliation

President McAleese (above) and Queen Elizabeth: showed determination and creativity to lead people to a relationship that has never been more secure, committed and mutually beneficial. Photograph Julien Behal/PA Wire

President McAleese (above) and Queen Elizabeth: showed determination and creativity to lead people to a relationship that has never been more secure, committed and mutually beneficial. Photograph Julien Behal/PA Wire


Next year, 2014, marks the centenary of the beginning of the first World War.

Heralded as the “war to end all wars”, it was to become but one chapter in the most bloody and war-torn century of human history.

For the people of Ireland, North and South, the myths and shibboleths that once marked our commemoration of the first World War have been remarkably transformed in recent years.

Key to this transformation was the courageous and inspired leadership of former president Mary McAleese and Queen Elizabeth II, supported and encouraged by many other creative and courageous individuals behind the scenes.

With remarkable generosity and dedication, Richard Haass, Meghan O’Sullivan and their team have undertaken a task of even greater scale and in significantly less time.

Their proposals have set before us a challenge now facing those in leadership, including the Irish and British governments, to exercise and sustain the same determination and creativity with which President McAleese and Queen Elizabeth led our peoples to a relationship that has never been more secure, committed and mutually beneficial than it is today.

Courageous leadership
It is clear from the modus and scope of the initiative undertaken by Richard Haass and his team that this call to creative, constructive and courageous leadership is not limited to politicians.

Indeed, in our meeting with Dr Haass, as representatives of the Catholic Church, we acknowledged there has been stagnation in the effort to consolidate peace in recent years.

There has been disengagement by many in churches and other important sources of civil leadership from the practical work of reconciliation.

We speculated that this was due in part to churches, perhaps like the two governments, becoming more consumed with their own pressing internal matters.

We also expressed concern that the two dominant parties in the North were inclined to underappreciate the importance of involving churches, and other key sources of social and bonding capital outside of politics, in initiatives to sustain a reconciled and humanly flourishing society.

I am mindful here of the words of that great Irish artisan of peace and visionary of a reconciled Europe, St Columbanus, over 1,400 years ago: “The knowledge that peace is good is of no benefit to us if we do not practise it.”

In the Haass initiative, we have glimpsed a new possibility that calls us to reignite that passion for peace, reconciliation and genuine human flourishing for all, not just our “own”, that is at the very heart of our call as followers of Jesus.

The message of Pope Francis for the World Day of Peace, New Year’s Day, speaks of the “good news that demands from each one a step forward, a perennial exercise of empathy, of listening to the suffering and hopes of others, even those further away from me”.

He goes on to remind us that “people’s legitimate ambitions (for peace), especially in the case of the young, should not be thwarted or offended, nor should people be robbed of their hope of realising them”.

The history of the peace process and the transformation in relationships between Britain and Ireland enabled by president McAleese and Queen Elizabeth, to be consolidated by the first state visit of President Higgins to Britain later in the new year, shows us that extraordinary things can happen when leaders, at every level, allow themselves to be led by the highest ideals and most creative hopes of the society they serve.

Perhaps it is timely to recall the pledge that marks the centre of the Irish Peace Park in Messines, Flanders, opened by president McAleese and Queen Elizabeth II on November 11th, 1998, the year of the Belfast Agreement: “We affirm that a fitting tribute to the principles for which men and women from the island of Ireland died in both world wars would be permanent peace”.

Having celebrated the birth of the prince of peace, perhaps it is also timely to recall the words of poet Frederick Nevin (1878 -1944), reflecting on the spontaneous truce that broke out from the trenches at Messines in Christmas 1914, 100 years ago next year:

Oh ye who read this truthful rime,

From Flanders, kneel and say:

God speed the time when every day,

Shall be as Christmas Day

Most Rev Noel Treanor is Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor

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