Church leaders ‘sorry’ for not doing more for peace in Northern Ireland

Event goes ahead without heads of state of either Ireland or United Kingdom

The Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh has said he is "sorry" church leaders "didn't do more to become peacemakers, or at least speak peace into the situation.

"Too often we allowed the attitudes of the societies around us which we serve us to shape us rather than the other way round," Reverend John McDowell said.

Archbishop McDowell was delivering a reflection at a church service in Armagh to mark 100 years since the partition of Ireland and the foundation of Northern Ireland.

During the service Billy Smith, a student at Armagh High School, carried a lantern containing a living flame burning within to symbolise the Light of Hope through the cathedral and presented it to the church leaders.


During a Centenary Prayer those present acknowledged “different and often polarised interpretations of history” and prayed that they might “learn from the experiences of the past ... so that the inheritance we pass on to the next generation is a gift of understanding, peace and hope.”

In his own reflection, the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin said that when looking back on the last 100 years he had to face "the difficult truth that perhaps we in the churches could have done more to deepen our understanding of each other and to bring healing and peace to our divided and wounded communities."

Looking back to 1921, Archbishop Martin said, he did so “like many others in my community and tradition ... with a deep sense of loss and also sadness, because for the past 100 years partition has polarised people on this island.”

Citing the example of the Good Samaritan, “who crossed social and historic barriers to show love and mercy to the one who was on ‘the other side’, he said this was “why I stand here today, as a disciple of Jesus, with my brothers and sisters in faith, hopeful and committed to doing what we can to build a better future for all, a future in which mistrust and division can become things of the past.”

Point in history

In the sermon delivered by the Reverend Dr Sahr Yambasu, the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, the congregation was told that "today we are marking a point in our history" and a time during which "many have made efforts towards building good community relations, but we have also witnessed too many terrible sectarian injustices an violence, too many win-lose political attitudes.

“This service provides us with an opportunity, an opportunity to give thanks but also an opportunity to lament, to say sorry, to imagine what could be, and to choose the way forward, that can be mutually beneficial,” he said.

The Right Rev Dr David Bruce, the President of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, said he looked back on 100 years with "mixed feelings" and lamented the "physical and emotional pain which has been caused over the last century to so many people by violence and the language and words which leads to violence.

“I grieve the times when fear has held us back from building relationships, relationships with those with whom we differ.

If we are to build a better future then we must recognise our own woundedness and our responsibility to care for the wounds of one another ... relationships of all sorts whether personal, community, religious or political, must mature and strengthen both across this island and between these islands,” he said.

The Service of Reflection and Hope, which was organised by the Church Leaders Group representing the five main Christian churches in Ireland, took place in St Patrick’s Church of Ireland cathedral in Armagh.

The service attracted controversy following the decision of President Michael D Higgins, to decline an invitation to the service because he said the title of the event had become politicised and it would not be appropriate for him to attend as head of state.

Queen Elizabeth, who had been due to attend, cancelled her visit after she advised not to travel to Northern Ireland on medical advice.

She was represented at the service by Earl Caledon, the Lord Lieutenant of County Armagh.

Guard of honour

Numbers inside the cathedral were limited due to Covid-19 restrictions, with about 130 people attending, including the UK prime minister Boris Johnson; Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and the chief whip, Jack Chambers; Northern Ireland's First Minister Paul Givan; the leaders of the DUP, UUP, SDLP and Alliance parties; and the Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis.

Mr Johnson and the Irish and British Government representatives were welcomed to the cathedral by a guard of honour made up of local primary school children.

A choir made up of children from different backgrounds and wearing brightly-coloured T-shirts to represent diversity and hope across the island sang a Song of Hope entitled We’re the Future of Tomorrow.

The Irish language was also represented at the service, with an opening prayer in Irish read by Seán Coll and the Irish language development officer Linda Ervine.

The organisers said other invited guests included civic dignitaries, children and young people, and over 100 community leaders working in peace-building, community development, health – including the North’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride – youth work, and various different aspects of church life.

Welcoming the guests to the cathedral for the service, the Dean of Armagh, the Very Reverend Shane Forster, said those present “on this ancient hill of Armagh” had gathered “to reflect on the significance of this centenary year and the long road we have travelled which also stretches out before us.”

We meet, he said, “people from diverse backgrounds and traditions, with different beliefs and aspirations, to pray for the healing of past hurts and to seek God’s guidance and hope for the future.

“Our past has shaped us and scarred us, it has divided us, and yet it has also on occasion brought us together.

“As we lament our failures, sorrows and pain, and recognise our wounded yet living history, may we with a united voice commit ourselves to work together for the common good, in mutual respect and with shared hope for a light-filled, prosperous and peaceful future.

‘No celebration of partition’

The SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has said the commemorative church service in Armagh on Thursday was “no celebration of partition” and those who had not attended should “look very carefully” at what had taken place.

The leaders of four out of the five parties in the Northern Executive were present at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland cathedral for the service marking the centenary of partition and the formation of Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin did not attend the service, with the party’s vice president, the North’s Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, tweeting on Thursday: “make partition history”.

Speaking to reporters after the event Mr Eastwood said the service had been a “reflection of the events that have happened over the past 100 years and it was, I think, a hopeful vision for the future, putting young people front and centre,” he said.

Partition, he said, was “coming to an end”, and said that in order to create a shared island “we have to be prepared to share rooms with people who disagree with us.”

Mr Eastwood defended the decision of President Michael D Higgins not to attend, saying he had a “different set of circumstances to weigh up.” “I don’t criticise anyone for not coming but I think they should look very carefully at what happened today, it was a reflection, it was a marking of an historical event. It was a hopeful service looking to the future,” Mr Eastwood said.

However the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson encouraged Mr Higgins to “actually sit down and watch this service, and perhaps see what it was truly about.

“It’s not about politics, it’s not about one side gloating or in any way seeking to be overbearing on the other, but actually all of us coming together to reflect on the journey that we have been on, difficult, painful that it has been at times but also a journey in which I hope we have learned a lot of things.”

He said the past 100 years contained many “painful memories” but the service had been a “great representation” of an inclusive, forward-looking Northern Ireland.

“I hope we have learned lessons from today, that we will reflect upon in the future and when we’re given the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder to reflect, to speak of hope, that in the future we will do it together,” he said.

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said it had been a “wonderfully uplifting service” and “unfortunately not everybody could be there” that was the “task for the next number of years, to try and get people to feel comfortable all being together and understanding what our differences are from the past.

“I think in the weeks and months to come people will look back and think what was the controversy all about... because what I saw was a real mix of people who classed themselves as Irish or British and many from other corners of the world,” he said.

Alliance party leader Naomi Long described it as a “fantastic service of celebration in the terms of celebrating our differences.

“I think it was a moment of reconciliation and an opportunity for us to come together and to look forward with hope to the future, to look at the kind of gracious acts that we need to do if we’re going to reconcile a broken and hurting community and a broken and hurting people on this island. “Peace building requires risks, reconciliation requires risks, the church leaders took risks, I commend them for that and I’m glad I was able to be part of it today,” she said.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times