The 50th anniversary of the onset of the Troubles has produced a lot of soul-searching. This book is part of that. Do not be put off by the title and the theology which threads though it – it has, after all been conceived by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI). The book takes the form of multiple oral histories and the categories are well-chosen, its key theme how the PCI conducted itself during the Troubles and how that can inform ongoing peacebuilding.
Undeniably, all the churches were in an impossible situation during the Troubles. Witness the images of Catholic priests conducting IRA funerals, particularly during the hunger strikes, giving the impression to detractors that they condoned their activities.
All the churches buried paramilitaries, for that, after all is what Christianity teaches: forgiveness of the sinner. But none were as pilloried quite as much as the Catholic Church.
In this book the clergy were expected to behave in an almost super-human way and many did: like Rev William Bingham who had to deal with the aftermath of IRA multiple sectarian murders of Protestants in the Kingsmills and Enniskillen massacres, as well as having to break the news of a husband’s murder to his wife.
And all the while helplessly being asked the perennial question : how could God let this happen? You didn’t get training at Union Theological College in coping with the abnormal circumstances arising from the Troubles, comments peace worker Lindsay Conway, “we weren’t heroes” – but many (if not enough) were.
There are countless stories here of when clergy returned time and time again to pray with bereaved families and of the victim’s sense of isolation when other clergy did not, particularly in Border areas where Presbyterian congregations were scattered and often without a minister.
RUC families predictably figure prominently among the victims, often suffering multiple losses, the trauma stretching down through the generations. Emily’s policeman father was shot dead by the IRA when she was four. A Catholic priest had prayed with him in the street as he lay dying and visited the family to offer condolences. But years later she was still reticent and fearful of identifying her background in her university Irish history class.
But there is also considerable criticism of the PCI, particularly of its perceived inadequacies in bridge-building and peacemaking. The names of those who do did try are few, most notably the Revs Ray Davey, John Dunlop, Lesley Carroll, Ruth Patterson, Ken Newell and Norman Hamilton, as well as the evangelical peace organisation Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland.
Some of those interviewed blame the very structure of the PCI for this poor showing: the high turnover of moderators (on an annual basis) and failure to continue funding for peacebuilding initiatives, as well as the democracy of ministerial appointments (congregations calling in/electing their ministers, equally with the power of dismissing them).
Fear of attack from Rev Ian Paisley seems to have been a major deterrent and the potential loss of members to the Free Presbyterian Church. And indeed he was active and vocal. Emily, mentioned earlier, tells of word arriving that Paisley was on his way to protest at the priest being in their home and “a whole big ruckus to try and get the priest out” before he arrived.
The appallingly unChristian treatment of the Rev David Armstrong is another episode cited as deterring Presbyterian cross-community activities. Armstrong was minister to First Limavady, 1981-5. He had reached out to Catholics, most famously crossing the street on Christmas days to shake hands with the Catholic priest. He received death threats from the loyalist paramilitaries and in 1985 was forced to resign by PCI elders.
Others who did try to build bridges felt unsupported. The work of Duncairn Presbyterian in one of the most torn parts of north Belfast eventually grew into today’s impressive 174 Trust. But “We did not feel supported by the Presbyterian Church as such. No one centrally contacted us during tense periods, and that was hard.” A whole chapter is devoted to these “Quiet Peacemakers”.
Forgiveness vs repentance
Poignantly the victims talk of expectations that they “move on” and “forgive” the perpetrators. I recall how discomfited I was when the media posed such questions to Gordon Wilson – whose daughter Marie was killed beside him in the Enniskillen bombing of 1987 – and how he was pilloried by his co-religionists when he actually did say he had forgiven the bombers. “Ministers will come and, if you forgive [the perpetrator], you nearly get a clap on the back,” comments Samuel Malcolmson, a seriously wounded police officer, who was never able to work again and whose mother had a fatal heart attack when she heard of the attack.
Forgiveness cannot come without “repentance” by the perpetrator. It is a reminder that “reconciliation” efforts can risk leaving victims behind, forgotten. As many here testify, news reports and documentaries revisiting the past, even major success stories such as Martin McGuinness becoming deputy first minister, can deepen the wounds.
While there are many examples of cross-community kindness in these interviews, one is struck at the sectarian stereotypes held by even tolerant people, surprise that a priest should enter an Orange hall or not feel discomfited sitting under a picture of the queen, or the priest expressing surprise at a part-time UDR man “speaking to him as a human”.
Oral history is not easy, though many seem to think it is. Gaining the trust of some 120 interviewees to confide often very painful experiences is quite an achievement. The book captures a moment at the heart of Presbyterianism, when, in the words of Drew Harris – Garda Commissioner and formerly PSNI deputy chief constable – the PCI is “a bit lost” since the end of the Troubles. It is not only the Presbyterian Church. Indeed, it seemed much easier to talk about the underlying causes of our divisions during the Troubles – their out-workings so brutally visible – than it is now.
And yet there is enough evidence in this impressive and courageous book to show the way, when all the churches assume a role of leadership in peacebuilding, rather than hedgehog roll into institutional protectiveness, such a factor in the polarised living that still prevails in much of Northern Ireland today.
Marianne Elliott is professor emerita at Liverpool University, author of When God Took Sides: Religion and Identity in Ireland – Unfinished History (2009) and most recently of Hearthlands: a Memoir of the White City Housing Estate in Belfast (2017)