Reconciliation on the cards
For many of my generation, our early years were dominated not by the shadow of violence cast by wars in distant lands, but by a conflict much closer to home. With an awful, relentless predictability, our TV screens were filled night after night with images of death and destruction in Northern Ireland. And then the terror came to England; to London, Guildford, Birmingham, Brighton… Security alerts and baggage searches became a routine part of our daily lives. The political leaders on both sides of the conflict became household names, and their blood curdling rhetoric served to emphasise the seemingly unbridgeable gap between them and between the Unionist and Nationalist positions. At the forefront were Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander, and Revd Ian Paisley, a fiery Protestant clergyman. Despite both being committed Christians, their common religion served only to divide them, being unable, it seemed, to see beyond their denominational identities as Catholic and Protestant.
The Good Friday Agreement, which eventually brought peace to Northern Ireland in 1998, had many architects, but none more significant than Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley. Rather like F.W De Clerk and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, they committed themselves, courageously and wholeheartedly, to the cause of peace making, incurring the wrath of many of their own supporters as they did so. The road to peace was painstaking, risky and costly. At its heart was an extraordinary challenge. Not simply to achieve the laying down of arms, but to bring about a significant measure of reconciliation between deeply divided communities, so that the peace would be a lasting one.
Nothing symbolised the commitment to reconciliation more powerfully than the personal friendship that developed between McGuiness and Paisley. They set aside decades of deep animosity to work together as First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and got on so well that they became known as the ‘Chuckle Brothers’ because of their smiling camaraderie. After McGuinness’ death earlier this year, Ian Paisley’s son , Kyle, paid a warm tribute to him , not only reflecting on the ’great good’ that the two men did together during their time in office , but also saying that the family would never forget McGuinness’ ‘ongoing care’ for Ian Paisley during his final illness.
The word reconciliation means to ‘bring back together again’ that which has been broken. It is a word that was central to St Paul’s understanding of Christianity. As he writes in the letter to the Corinthians;
“….in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us ……”
In an interview given shortly before his death, Martin McGuinness, said how much he had appreciated all the cards and good wishes that had been sent to him. And he said that he had been particularly moved by the many Protestants who had said that they were praying for him.
Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, through their commitment to the demanding and costly work of reconciliation, not only helped to ‘bring back together again’ the divided peoples of Northern Ireland but also helped to bring Christians back into fellowship with another. They became ambassadors for Christ whereas once their warlike rhetoric must have made many wonder whether Christ was present in either.
Peace and reconciliation are at the heart of the identity and calling of the people of God. How might we live out this calling, as individuals and as the local church? How might we play a part in transforming conflict?
Canon Sarah Snyder, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Advisor for Reconciliation, is to address these questions in her forthcoming lecture to Clergy and Readers within the Wolverhampton Episcopal Area. Details can be found on the Diocesan website.