God works in mysterious ways in Ireland.
Archbishop Dr. Sean Brady
The main evening news on public broadcaster RTE is called Six One because that is when it begins after a minute’s reflection on the mystery of God’s incarnation in the body of Jesus, while the Angelus bell tolls.
However, this being a very modern, capitalist Ireland, the Angelus interlude on the national broadcaster is preceded by a raucous five minutes of non-stop ads including the breathless pitches of our own Harvey Norman.
On the devil’s own day, 6/6/06, the Irish Independent had a story on its front page that God must have had a hand in. It announced that the Catholic Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Dr Sean Brady, held top secret talks in his residence at Armagh with the leaders of key protestant fraternities: the Orange Order, the Independent Orange Order and the Royal Black Preceptory. That’s right. The Orangemen meeting with the chief Papist.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph! What’s the world coming to?!
The newspaper struggled to find an adjective for the unprecedented meeting before settling on ‘historic.’ And indeed, it was the first such encounter in the centuries-old sectarian feud in what is now called Northern Ireland (pronounced ‘Norn Iron’ by the locals).
Dr Brady said the meeting was at the request of the Loyal Orders:
Coming into a time when tensions often rise in Northern Ireland, the symbolism of such a meeting is powerful. It represented their willingness to go beyond the barriers of history and I welcomed their desire to explain their customs, principles and values of their institutions.
The tensions he refers to is the Orange marching season, when the Protestant Loyal Orders frock-up in bowler hats, garish aprons and brollies and go marching through the Catholic areas to show they are the masters still.
Since peace broke out in Norn Iron with the IRA Good Friday agreement to lay down their guns in 1998 the two sides of the sectarian divide have been trying to work out how they might live together … very trying.
The political Parties in the Stormont Norn Iron Assembly have spent the past few weeks failing to agree on a committee devoted to identifying how devolution might be restored by the Irish and British Governments’ deadline of 24 November. The first two weeks involved wrangling over whether it should be formed, with Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Ian Paisley initially saying the DUP would not engage with Sinn Fein on the committee.
This was resolved with agreement that the committee would identify obstacles to restoring devolution as opposed to negotiating them.
However, all week, the committee had not formally opened proper business because of the deadlock over who should be the chair. This revolves around DUP opposition to Sinn Fein taking the chair the plan was to rotate between the Parties and Sinn Fein’s insistence that it must, at some stage, hold the post.
It is a very Irish way of solving a problem. The British Secretary for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, recently expressed his deep frustration at the imbroglio. ‘It is impossible to see the Assembly moving on substantive business if there cannot be agreement on such a basic procedural issue as chairing the preparation-for-government committee,’ he said.
Secretary Hain finally resolved to break the deadlock by appointing the DUP and Sinn Fein Deputy Speakers in the Stormont Assembly Jim Wells and Francie Molloy as joint chairmen of the committee.
But Jim Allister, a DUP Member of the Eurpoean Parliament whose constituency includes the whole of Norn Iron, has even suggested that direct rule is preferable to a return to power-sharing with the Catholics.
Meanwhile, the loyalist paramilitaries like the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) have failed to decommission a single bullet and sectarian violence continues unabated. Last month, Michael McIlveen, a 15-year-old Catholic schoolboy was murdered in what police say was a sectarian killing at Ballymena in County Antrim. During his funeral, loyalist paramilitary flags were flown at a nearby band parade and sectarian slogans were shouted during a minute’s silence for the dead kid.
Ballymena is in the heart of Ian Paisley’s North Antrim constituency. Paisley is the leader of the DUP, the largest party in the Assembly, and is likely to be First Minister if self government returns to Stormont. He is believed to have refused all attempts to meet with the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Negotiations to arrange the encounter have been taking place for more than a year but the DUP has consistently failed to agree to a date despite having invited other (read Protestant) churches to meet it.
Although Paisley is the Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church and has a long history of opposing the Catholic faith he was once thrown out of the European Parliament for verbally attacking Pope John Paul II the DUP promises in its manifesto to work for ‘everyone’ in the north.
It is also very Irish for ‘everyone’ to have both an inclusive and exclusive meaning.
Speaking of which, the Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern last week described Norn Iron’s peace process as a ‘success story, arguably one of the most successful experiences in peace-building, bar none.’
To be sure, to be sure…
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