When I speak with ministers or seminarians, they all agree: their clinical pastoral education turned their theology lessons from theory to reality. There is nothing like comforting the dying, praying with a prisoner, or helping a student discern her calling to experience the beauty and grace of the divine.
For me, as someone who studied peace theory in college, my theory did not become reality until I went to Northern Ireland. Peace, there, was always a tenuous ideal despite the fact that it had been a little less than a decade since Catholic and Protestant leaders signed the 1998 Peace Accord, creating a power sharing agreement between Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists.
Violence in Northern Ireland definitely had been reduced, but had not disappeared. While violence based on religious backgrounds had grown out of societal favor, we had seen increased hate crimes against recent immigrants and surrounding perceived gender and sexuality. The drug trade and organized crime also lead to an increase of street violence.
For the people of Northern Ireland, politics, religion and culture is a big stew of memory and hurt. While the dividing systems of The Troubles are under deconstruction, it is nearly impossible to fully bring together such a divided and segregated society. Even if every sectarian mural was painted over, every “security fence” taken down, and every bench scrubbed clean of graffiti, it would be a herculean task to reconcile a city such as London/Derry, which has literally polarized its different factions of population on opposite sides of a river.
During my time in Northern Ireland, people were happy for the peace accord. Democracy was blooming as power sharing negotiations had begun again and the local government returned to order after a five year hiatus. People were hopeful again.
But tension lingered. Sectarian violence always seemed to be a possibility. Anger and frustration churned just below the surface, like a pot of water just before it starts to boil. The question was: would sectarianism ever come to the surface and erupt again?
Last Sunday, two British soldiers were gunned down by the Republican paramilitary, RIRA (Real Irish Republican Army), stationed in Northern Ireland’s County Antrim before they left for Afghanistan. And again, the next day, a different Republican paramilitary, CIRA (Continuity Irish Republican Army) took credit for the first murder of a police officer in over ten years.
Immediately the leadership of Sinn Fein, the majority Catholic Republican party in Northern Ireland, denounced the violence. Martin McGuinness, former leader of the Provisional IRA and Deputy Leader of the party called the dissident Republicans “traitors” to the peace process. He added that the CIRA and RIRA “don’t deserve to be supported by anyone.”
Strong words from a man convicted in 1987 of setting bombs that killed eleven.
As the Northern Ireland Assembly met at Stormont (the Capitol building of Northern Ireland) on Monday, the Sinn Fein Leadership stood and offered a moment of silence for the fallen soldiers and police officer. Republican Leadership offering a moment of silence for fallen British soldiers was a sight unthinkable as little as five years ago.
I was deeply moved by seeing the Nationalist and Republican responses to this violence. It is a strong testament to the peace process and the power of reconciliation. Yesterday, a friend in Northern Ireland posted pictures from the rally in Belfast. All over the province, over 200,000 people (about 1/6th of the population of Northern Ireland) came out for a silent protest against the violence.
As Minister McGuinness put it, in many ways this violence has “strengthened the peace process.”
Many people wondered what the radical Loyalist factions would say about the killings. Thus far, they have been positive.
Jackie McDonald, head of the largest Loyalist paramilitary–Ulster Defense Association (UDA)–has echoed Minister McGuinness’ statements saying, “The IRA blew the two communities apart during the Troubles but the Real IRA and Continuity IRA have actually united the people like never before.”
While the major political leaders and much of the population have decried the violence, it is not over yet. A threat of a “major” and “considerable” bomb being smuggled onto the island by CIRA and/or RIRA has caused a cross-border task force of the Northern Ireland Police Service and the Republic of Ireland’s Garda Siochana (Guardians of the Peace). So far, two people have been arrested in connection to that threat but no device has been found.