Armagh event lived up to organisers’ hopes, Presbyterian moderator says

President’s decision not to attend ‘a chapter in history that has been written and we’ve moved on’

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney and British prime minister Boris Johnson were among those in attendance at St Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh for a service to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland. Video: Reuters

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A church leader who was one of the organisers of Thursday’s cross-community church service in Armagh has said the event lived up to their hopes and made a difference to reconciliation.

“Did the service reflect what we as church leaders would have wished, yes it did,” said Reverend Dr David Bruce, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

“This was a solemn moment to mark a historic event and to help to build a foundation upon which a future can rest,” he said.

The Service of Reflection and Hope was organised by the leaders of the five main Christian churches in Ireland to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland.

It went ahead on Thursday without either of the heads of state of Ireland or Britain. The President, Michael D Higgins, declined an invitation last month because he felt the title of the event had become politicised and it would not be appropriate for him to attend, while Queen Elizabeth - who had been due to attend - was unable to do so on medical advice.

Speaking to The Irish Times after the service, Dr Bruce explained he had previously said the service would be “diminished” if Mr Higgins was not present, and said the queen’s absence “further diminished what we envisaged the service to be.”

However, he said “anything that we say about the subject would rest, very firmly, on the foundation of what we sought to achieve today” and the mix of participants, particularly the children and young people, meant “we couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

On the President’s decision not to attend, he said Mr Higgins had made his reasons clear and “that’s now a chapter in history that has been written and we’ve moved on”.

He stressed his personal “respect and admiration for Michael D Higgins both as a man and an office holder” and while “I would have wished, I would have hoped he would have been with us ... I respect the fact that he chose not to come and I’m absolutely certain that as far as he is concerned the matter is now behind us.”

As to the queen’s absence, he said he would have “loved” her to have been present and his understanding was that she was “deeply sorry” she was unable to do so.

“I think she would have found common purpose with the motivations behind the service and I feel certain she would have enjoyed being with us, and she has expressed not only publicly but separately to us her regret that she was not able to come,” he said.

Symbolically, he said, “it was important to us” that the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson attended. “I think he found some aspects of the service very moving ... he said he would have loved to have broken into a round of applause when the children and young people had sung.”

The event’s achievement, Dr Bruce said, was that it “demonstrates that we have worked hard at relationships and we have sought to give permission to others to think beyond the norms and to recognise that actually there may be fresh ways that we can express our difference in a way that’s nourishing and healing.”

At the service, he said, “I saw a leader from the Catholic tradition stand alongside [A LEADER FROM]the Protestant tradition, diametrically opposed in terms of theology, ideology, culture, politics, sport, you name it, and yet there they were able to model together a degree of collaboration and relationship that in itself is a prophetic event.”

During the service Dr Bruce was one of four church leaders who shared personal reflections, saying he looked back on the last 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,” he said, adding that in order to construct a better future “relationships of all sorts whether personal, community, religious or political, must mature and strengthen both across this island and between these islands,” he said.

Explaining the motivation behind his address, Dr Bruce said “I don’t consider myself to be a victim of the Troubles, but I did have a close friend who was murdered in 1979, a school friend, and I don’t think a day’s gone by since then that I haven’t thought of him.

“So violence, which is really what I was focusing on in the central part of my piece, brutalises us, leaves a mark upon us, it means we acquire not a bruise but scar tissue ... and as a culture as well as individuals.

“There were individuals in wheelchairs who bear the physical scars of violence who participated in the service, but we too as a culture have been brutalised and I think this was a moment when we could say that, name that and recognise that while we ourselves may have been wounded, we have a duty of care for those who are wounded alongside us, even if ideologically they occupy different space.

He was, he said, “trying to make the very simple point that all of us are participants in this, all of us bear the scars and all of us have a responsibility to bring healing.”

Did he feel the service has made a difference? “I do, for the two reasons ... in demonstrating that relationships are important and in giving permission, I think that if we have modelled that even in a small way that’s another one of those blocks that has carefully crafted and is laid into the foundation upon which future generations can build.”