Last month I attended a lecture on “Religion, Conflict and Peace” given by Professor John Brewer of QUB at St Oliver Plunkett Church in West Belfast.
Eexcellent night but for me spoiled by some unchallenged comments from the Floor. It would have been easy for me to get angry about things that I heard…not least because a family member was a prison chaplain during the worst days of the Troubles. The most significant battles of the Conflict took place behind the barbed wire at Long Kesh.
In the nature of these things, quite a lot of Expertise and Experience is in the audience. Fifteen people made contributions but thru no fault of the Chair, too many contributions began with “I am an ex-combatant…I am an ex-prisoner….The Church did nothing for me…I am an athiest”.
Again its in the nature of these things…the protocol…that an audience member gets one question. It was too lively a Q&A for an audience member to be selected twice. But the presence of so many ex-combatants essentially making the same point unbalanced things. Was it co-ordinated? Well Sinn Fein are ALWAYS co-orinated. Was the Audience “packed”? I am not sure but I tend to think that it was.
To claim that the Church has done nothing for Irish nationalism-republicanism is a discussion that is best left to Captain Boyle and Joxer Daly (in Sean O’Caseys Juno and the Paycock) or maybe it just has echoes of “what did the Romans do for us?” From Monty Pythons Life of Brian to St Olivers, nobody seemed to notice that the church was named for an Irish bishop who was hanged, drawn and quartered in London in the late seventeenth century.
Indeed quite a lot of Irish News Death Notices of those “killed in action” invoke SAINT Oliver Plunkett alongside Mary, Queen of the Gael.
The ex-combatants have short memories.
I am blessed (cursed!) with a longer one.
Back in May 1973…the Council Elections …the first test of public opinion since the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969 (I discount the 1970 British Election) were held. Fr Dennis Faul, a Catholic priest (NEVER a chaplain at Long Kesh by the way) called for a boycott of these elections as support for the internees.
I suported that call and did not vote. From being a hero of the Republican Movement in 1973, Fr Faul became the exact opposite in 1981. He is regarded by Republicans as undermining the Hunger Strike campaign.
A certain ingratitude perhaps.
Of course within days of the Council Elections, I was a member of SDLP canvassing in West Belfast for the upcoming Assembly Elections.
And as I have mentioned before in this Blog, I recall relatives of arrested Republicans calling on SDLP for help in tracing the RUC station to which these arrested people were taken.
Vividly I recall the Monday night…sitting in the back of Desmond Gillespies car with the mother of an arrested man. We went to Andytown RUC Station before he was located at Springfield Road.
And the mother of the man was grateful.
Well for ten days at least. Until she was picketing Dessie’s house in Gransha…cant recall the exact words on her placard but “SDLP Collaborators” would sum it up.
So dont look for Gratitude in that direction.
The Church? The Catholic Church? Did the Republicans and Sinn Fein never use the good offices of the institutional Church to broker anything for them. Frankly Sinn Fein have used them shamelessly….when it suited. As is their right.
I am from West Belfast.
I am OF West Belfast.
I have WALKED behind the coffins that the ex-combatants at St Olivers might have MARCHED behind.
And I still do…old friends, old neighbours die of natural causes.
Dont ask me how many funerals?
Each time I count, I get a different answer.
And on all but one occasion, the funeral had Catholic Church involvement.
And I recall attending a few funerals where a Catholic chaplain escorted a IRA prisoner, released to attend a funeral.
How many of the ten dead hunger strikers received the Last Rites of the Catholic Church?
One? Ten?…Id go with “Ten”.
Now of course…ex-prisoners, ex- combatants are fully entitled to play “the old soldier” card. Theres a long and honourable tradition in all armies of quiet service followed by quiet retirement and occasional visits to the American Legion, the British Legion or the Felons Club in West Belfast. But theres a slightly less honourable tradition of old soldiers doing the whole “I dont wanna talk about it” before boring the arse off anyone who will listen.
Conflict Resolutionists SEEK to give the ex-combatants a voice. Thats reasonable. But these decently minded people need a filter….to distinguish between the Genuine and the Spoofer.
And….as maybe the two priests and one Presbyterian minister in the hall at St Oliver Plunketts could tell the Conflict Resolutionists….dont expect GRATITUDE. The going rate (according to the Bible) for Gratitude is One in Ten.