The Common Good
May-June 1996

Gamblers and Swimmers

by Keith Scott | May-June 1996

Shattering myths in Northern Ireland.

On February 9, a huge bomb exploded in London's dockland, marking the end of the "total cessation of all military activities" declared by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) at the end of August 1994. Northern Ireland was bad news once more.

We in Northern Ireland are locked together in destructive relationships that are shaped and expressed by ideologies that have a clear religious content and are themselves products of the long and bitter history of religious conflict. We "myth-understand" one another and our history in the light of these ideologies.

When the cease-fire was first declared, there were high hopes that a final end to our conflict was at hand. There was talk of peace dividends, economic revival, and as always in Ireland of money from America. It did not take long for things to begin to go wrong. Most of the problems revolved around the willingness of the British government, and more important the Northern Ireland Unionist parties, to trust the IRA. What they wanted was the IRA to say some words or make some gesture to the effect that violence was over, permanently.

With its roots in the tradition articulated by Patrick Pearse's oath, "That we will free our race from bondage, or that we will fall fighting hand to hand"-the IRA could do no such thing. The Ulster Protestants, with their long tradition of mistrust of all things Irish and Catholic, could make no move to accommodate themselves to the olive branch on offer, flimsy and insubstantial as it might have been.

Our hearts are too possessed by our myths of redemptive violence for us to give up their ways easily, too inured to the human and economic costs. Even that bomb and the breakdown in the cease-fire had more to do with the fact that our mutual misunderstanding continues to enslave us than with the intransigence of the British government. It is we, in our mutual mistrust, who will not sit down to talk with one another.

THE GUN HAS BEEN in Irish politics since guns became common, and the gun has a way of becoming insidiously addictive. Like all addicts we are often reluctant to admit that we have a problem. Much simpler to blame someone or something else. And like all addicts we are at least familiar, if not at ease, with our addiction, familiar enough for any new situation to be seriously disorienting, even threatening.

I suspect that this is true even of those, like me, who have always, or mostly always, been uncomfortable with the more obvious forms of sectarianism. When push comes to shove we can identify our enemy, as much as any vigorous Unionist or Nationalist-we know what it is we are against. We are comfortable with that certitude, even if we are not too sure what it is that we are for.

The cease-fire, I rather suspect, disconcerted us as much as anyone else, and we spent much time in the last year on an agonizing search for new, post cease-fire meanings to our work and aspirations. I do not mean to be overly bleak, but I think it best to name this particular power that has us in its grip, in order that we may engage it, to use Walter Wink's language.

There are also signs of hope. When the troubles first began, there were absolutely no bridges across the divisions in our community. Few if any were doing cross-community work; indeed I doubt if many were even aware that such a thing might be necessary! As violence developed, any attempts to speak of peace and reconciliation were openly condemned as treason.

Today relationships have been formed where once there were none. There has been excellent, even daring, work done by the small contact groups that built these new relationships. The long patient years of this sort of work, the cease-fire, the hope it evoked, and the sheer frustration its ending engendered may shift our cultural paradigms. People may be about to move from seeing work for peace as betrayal to accepting it, even if only as a necessary evil.

There will of course always be those who oppose any step away from the old familiar traditions. No community is free from this. Tony de Mello wrote, "What you need is not security but the daring of the gambler; not solid ground to stand on but the dexterity of the swimmer."

Not long ago my wife Lyn and I stood with our children in a crowded town square. We stood like sheep before the shearers, in mute protest against violence, praying that there is enough of the swimmer and gambler in us to build a new world where we live. The afternoon was bright, almost mild. It might well have been spring, the time for new life and hope.

KEITH SCOTT is Church of Ireland (Anglican) rector of the Arclinis group of parishes in the glens of Antrim, Northern Ireland.

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