Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A week is a long time in Northern Ireland ...

I keep two versions of this blog - one on the News and Star website and one at www.blogger.com. Usually I post the same items on both in the same day. Owing to a slight misunderstanding between myself and my long-suffering staff, there was a delay in posting some of this month's entries on the blogspot site.

So when I came to post here a piece which I had written immediately after the World Cup qualifier between England and Northern Ireland, the senseless violence of the last few days made the optimistic tone of that entry seem wholly inappropriate. I am convinced that my basic point was right, but I have rewritten the piece to reflect more recent events.

Last week when the final whistle blew, with the score at one goal for Northern Ireland to none for England, the cameras zoomed in on the scene where two types of flag were being waved in close proximity by jubilant supporters. Some were green flags belong to ecstatic Irish supporters, from Ireland's Catholic community – the others were the flag of St George modified by loyalist symbols, and these flags were being waved by equally ecstatic football supporters from the Ulster protestant community.

I never thought I would see such flags from those two communities being waved in jubilation, side by side, as both sides celebrated the same event. I know some people can never regard an English sporting defeat as anything other than a national disaster. But to me – a British Anglican married to an Irish catholic – the sight of protestants and catholics celebrating together said something positive about the ability of people to come together, compared to which the loss of the match paled into insignificance.

But Northern Ireland has seen many false dawns and this was yet another. In the past few days of rioting both policemen and innocent women and children have been injured by thugs who wrongly describe themselves as "loyalists".

Guys, nobody who throws things at, let along fires automatic weapons at, Her Majesty's police officers for trying to do their job, is in a position to describe himself as a loyalist. And nobody who takes part in such behaviour or refuses to condemn it, whatever community they come from, has any business claiming that they are operating on the principles of any form of Christianity, Protestant or Catholic.

Jesus Christ told his followers to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." And when they came to arrest him, Jesus told two of his disciples who tried to defend him with force to put their swords away, saying "those who live by the sword shall die by the sword." The first century Aramaic language didn't have words for "machine gun" or "petrol bomb" but I think it's fairly clear that the sense of the instruction covers them.

If we want peace in Northern Ireland we have to make sure that those who follow democratic paths are rewarded and those who use or threaten violence are not. That message has not always been sent as clearly as it should have been. We owe it to the children of Northern Ireland to make it clear to everyone. Last week's scenes of celebration as protestants and catholics waved their flags side by side represent the future. The rioting of the past few days does not.

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