Bishop Colton and Min­is­ter Flana­gan help us to face the past

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Analysis - Eoghan Harris

SAM Maguire, who died in poverty, was a pa­triot who still con­tin­ues to serve his coun­try. Last week he linked two brave tes­ti­monies, by Paul Colton, Church of Ire­land Bishop of Cork, and Char­lie Flana­gan, Min­is­ter for Jus­tice and Equal­ity.

Bishop Colton was speak­ing at St Mary’s Church of Ire­land in Dun­man­way where he ded­i­cated the Sam Maguire Com­mu­nity Bells, brain­child of Rev Cliff Jef­fers.

Sa­muel Maguire, the sub­ject of a fine new bi­og­ra­phy by Kieran Con­nolly, lies be­neath a Celtic Cross much vis­ited by public fig­ures who rightly revere this sport­ing Protes­tant Repub­li­can.

But Bishop Colton knew lo­cal Church of Ire­land lis­ten­ers had not for­got­ten that not far away are the re­mains of three vic­tims of the IRA who have yet to re­ceive proper re­spect.

On April 27, 1922, an IRA gang shot down Dun­man­way chemist David Gray, solic­i­tor Fran­cis Fitz­mau­rice, and draper James But­timer — three in­no­cent vic­tims of the Ban­don Val­ley mas­sacre who some IRA apol­o­gists still try to smear as spies.

Bishop Colton care­fully picked the time and place to tell us some hard truths I had given up hope of ever hear­ing from se­nior clergy of the Church of Ire­land.

For nearly 100 years, the Church of Ire­land pre­ferred not to pub­licly no­tice grim ghosts, be­liev­ing it was show­ing sen­si­tiv­ity and pro­mot­ing peace.

But they were re­ally de­priv­ing Ro­man Catholics of vi­tal in­for­ma­tion about the feel­ings of the mi­nor­ity com­mu­nity, re­press­ing Protes­tant folk mem­ory and, in my ex­pe­ri­ence of talk­ing to young Protes­tants, do­ing se­ri­ous psychic dam­age.

Bishop Colton is cut from tougher cloth. He be­gan by ask­ing how best to con­duct the min­istry of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. His an­swer was to speak the truth.

For the first time I can re­call, Bishop Colton shared the fears and feel­ings of ru­ral Protes­tants with the ma­jor­ity of their fel­low Chris­tians in the Ro­man Catholic com­mu­nity.

Re­fer­ring to the cen­te­nary of the War of In­de­pen­dence and Civil War, and the four years of com­mem­o­ra­tions to come, he laid it on the line.

“Among some of our Church of Ire­land com­mu­nity (and I am sure they are not alone) the com­mem­o­ra­tions are an­tic­i­pated fear­fully and with a cer­tain dread.”

This may have come as a shock to many ur­ban Ro­man Catholics and Protes­tants who are re­mote from the re­al­i­ties of ru­ral Ire­land.

In cer­tain pock­ets of our coun­try, par­tic­u­larly where there has been a sec­tar­ian past, a tiny mi­nor­ity of tribal thugs con­tinue to treat ru­ral Protes­tants as hostages.

Sec­tar­ian in­ci­dents rise dur­ing cel­e­bra­tions of the War of In­de­pen­dence or in pe­ri­ods where Loy­al­ists are caus­ing prob­lems for north­ern na­tion­al­ists.

This was par­tic­u­larly the case dur­ing H-Blocks, marked by bro­ken church win­dows, anony­mous let­ters, bul­lets through the post, or sec­tar­ian graf­fiti.

More re­cently, cred­i­ble bomb threats were made against a small Protes­tant church in west Cork; Camolin Church in Wex­ford was de­faced with sec­tar­ian slo­gans; and feel­ings in Fethard-on-Sea con­tinue to fes­ter.

The rea­son we don’t hear more re­ports of petty trib­al­ism is be­cause the Church of Ire­land plays them down for fear of mak­ing things worse — and from a re­luc­tance to give a re­al­ity check to Ro­man Catholics who like to be­lieve such things don’t hap­pen.

Bishop Colton sig­nalled the end of sugar-coat­ing. “There is an un­der­stand­able re­luc­tance to name any­thing in our past as sec­tar­ian or un­de­sir­able, but we are not well served by pre­tence ei­ther.”

The sugar-coat­ing should have stopped with Peter Hart’s clas­sic The IRA and Its En­e­mies which ac­cused the IRA of sec­tar­ian ac­tions.

Some se­ri­ous his­to­ri­ans dis­agree with Hart’s the­sis — they have an al­ter­na­tive anal­y­sis.

Also there are apol­o­gists for the Old IRA who pre­vented both Catholics and Protes­tants from di­gest­ing Hart’s work and aton­ing for the past.

Apol­o­gists saw Protes­tant vic­tims exclusively as spies based on self-serv­ing IRA state­ments to the Bu­reau of Mil­i­tary His­tory.

That is why Gerry Gregg and my­self made An Tost Fada (The Long Si­lence), the tes­ti­mony of Canon Ge­orge Salter. But even his trans­par­ently hon­est story could not move hard­core Old IRA apol­o­gists.

At the West Cork His­tory Fes­ti­val, as lo­cal Protes­tants as­sem­bled to watch a screen­ing of An Tost Fada, mem­bers of the Aubane His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety handed out fly­ers con­demn­ing the doc­u­men­tary as “gravely in­com­pe­tent his­tory as pro­pa­ganda”.

Free speech, you might say — but also a re­minder to ru­ral west Cork Protes­tants that even the tes­ti­mony of a Church of Ire­land Canon would not be ac­cepted as proof of past suf­fer­ing.

Some aca­demics have also sought to mit­i­gate IRA ac­tions with the help of a bat­tery of sta­tis­tics.

Here it is worth not­ing that his­tory is not a sci­ence. Facts are not fixed. Like sta­tis­tics, they are sub­ject to many in­ter­pre­ta­tions.

Bishop Colton pointed out the lim­i­ta­tions of sta­tis­tics in giv­ing us a real sense of Protes­tant fear dur­ing the War of In­de­pen­dence and Civil War.

“Sta­tis­tics do not tell peo­ple’s hu­man sto­ries as they are re­mem­bered... the truth it­self about that pe­riod can­not be ex­trap­o­lated from sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis of deaths alone.”

There is strong ev­i­dence to sup­port him. In let­ters to the Sun­day In­de­pen­dent, Cal Hy­land and Pro­fes­sor Liam Kennedy, who have re­viewed the raw data from the Ir­ish Grants Com­mis­sion, con­firmed that Protes­tant mem­ory of sec­tar­ian abuse was well founded.

But the most strik­ing as­pect of the de­bate is the role of what I call ‘Public Protes­tants’, who pro­fess to have no prob­lems with the past.

Ro­man Catholics who cor­re­spond with me of­ten won­der about the mo­tives of Public Protes­tants who dom­i­nate public dis­cus­sion on the sub­ject.

Cer­tainly Robin Bury, au­thor of the re­cently pub­lished Buried Lives: The Protes­tants of South­ern Ire­land, would like an an­swer to that ques­tion.

Bury’s book is a pow­er­ful, polem­i­cal and de­tailed ac­count of the de­cline of south­ern Protes­tants.

So far it has re­ceived noth­ing but neg­a­tive no­tices from Protes­tant re­view­ers who rushed to as­sure Ro­man Catholics that things weren’t that bad.

Luck­ily Ro­man Catholic politi­cians like Char­lie Flana­gan, who grew up with ru­ral Protes­tants, pre­fer to face the past, warts and all.

Last week in Laois, un­veil­ing a plaque to LanceSgt Jack Moyney VC, he re­sponded warmly to Bishop Colton’s call for hon­esty and sen­si­tiv­ity in the com­ing War of In­de­pen­dence and Civil War com­mem­o­ra­tions.

“I agree with Bishop Colton. As Min­is­ter for Jus­tice and Equal­ity, I wish to as­sure Bishop Colton and com­mu­ni­ties of care­ful plan­ning and most sen­si­tive han­dling of these events.”

Char­lie Flana­gan has the same kind of moral courage as Bishop Colton.

In proof of that I noted that he pub­licly praised the work of “Kevin My­ers who is here with us to­day”.

Like Bishop Colton, he could have kicked into touch. But he rightly gave My­ers his due. This prompts me to tell the me­dia a truth.

Tol­er­ance is not merely per­mit­ting. It’s per­mit­ting while dis­ap­prov­ing.

Harris

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