Christian Forgiveness in Northern Ireland

By Collins, Michael H. | Contemporary Review, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Christian Forgiveness in Northern Ireland


Collins, Michael H., Contemporary Review


THREE key results areas for forgiveness and reconciliation in Northern Ireland are the need to erase the ideology of violence from Irish history, above all, that of the twentieth century; the need to regenerate longstanding areas of severe deprivation both north and south of the Border; and the need to remedy the chronic complacency and ignorance of the English about Irish affairs.

As Roy Foster has observed, imprisoning historical perspectives is a dragnet trammelling much of current discourse. Foster expands on his views in 'Anglo-Irish Relations and Northern Ireland: Historical Perspectives' in Dermot Keogh and Michael H. Haltzer (eds), Northern Ireland and the Politics of Reconciliation (Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Cambridge University Press, 1993). This article indicates some of the intellectual resources available, particularly from within the Christian framework, towards developing new perspectives and generating new visions. Ideas and ideals, of course, cannot bring about change simply by being stated. People need to be committed to them and to act on them. But just as entrenched attitudes from the past may act as blinders, so the discussion of new ideas which is taking place in and about Northern Ireland may point to exciting new possibilities. The Chairman of DuPont knew that half the money the company spent on advertising was wasted but he also knew that the other half w as essential to getting results.

Underlying the ideological positions of both sides to the conflict in Northern Ireland are rigid traditions about how key events in the distant and recent past must be seen by those who wish to be, and be seen to be, loyal to their communities in the present. The history of Northern Ireland has until the last few years been written as a history of division, with little attempt to examine what people of different faith traditions (or none) who live in Northern Ireland may have to share and to celebrate together. It is as if the history of England had continued to be written since the seventeenth century as that of the conflict between Cavaliers and Roundheads.

One reason that it is difficult for people in England to come to terms with how history is seen in Northern Ireland is that the English have for so long been accustomed to a unitary account of their own conflicts. This account, which can be said to take its origin from the debates over the Revolution of 1688, is known as the 'Whig' view of English history, a viewpoint which sees history as a progressive affair of peaceful and piecemeal development, which, since the 'Glorious Revolution' established constitutional monarchy, has only occasionally been punctuated with violence.

It is ironic, although understandable and explicable, that the history of Ireland, arising out of the same events, has been written from the opposite standpoint; and a matter for regret by the English that whilst they managed their dealings with the French Catholic population of Quebec with sensitivity and success they were persistently selfish and short-sighted in their approach to the Catholic population of Ireland.

The Whig view of history has of course been challenged from the Marxist standpoint and others because it underplays the persistence of unresolved conflicts of interest. Recently the role of the working class in history has been more clearly recognized and the interests of working class people in history writing has been better catered for in the publications of historians. But, broadly, the Whig view has never been displaced as the premier model of English historiography, probably both because of its power as an explanation of events and as an ideology of the English aspiration that political differences should be settled by peaceful evolution. Striking evidence of the power of this aspiration is given in Donald Kagan's acclaimed analysis of the short-sighted passivity, influenced by thoroughgoing pacifism, of British policy before both World Wars. …

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