My position was as Anglican archbishop of Armagh, which means I was the Anglican primate for the whole of Ireland, North and South, and that period of 22 years before I retired coincided with what we call the troubles, the war in Ireland.
Thousands of lives were lost and the 2 communities were at loggerheads. On one side, the Protestants wished for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK. The Roman Catholic (RC) community favoured the unification of Ireland.
The two communities were often forced to take sides to follow one argument or the other. Extremism, which is the subject of this conference, took a particular face in the Northern Ireland conflict. It was encouraged by the men and women of violence and the communities they came from feared to oppose them. While a minority was monitoring the attacks, the two communities were divided as a consequence.
My role in the peace process was to be instrumental in trying to build confidence that didn’t exist between those 2 blocks or entities. The main lesson I have learned over the period of that peace process is that every conflict situation may cause suffering. The local identity of conflict is the first thing I want to emphasize, but it has to be read alongside the fact that there is human loss, misery and suffering and the first keyword I want to use is the word fear.
One of the things that I felt at the beginning was that we had to find some way of overcoming ignorance of other people. People living within a few meters of each other didn’t know each other. They had a mental picture of what that neighbour stood for because they’d never met.
When a person meets another person and they know they are in the same place to talk and listen, there will eventually emerge common denominators; common concerns, fears and hopes. This is particularly true for ladies. The mothers, wives and young children of the people that were in conflict were the first to say: “there is a certain ignorance we want to overcome”.
The second stage of the peace process came about when I started to talk to the men and women of violence and I was under threat for quite a period: my life, my family were threatened simply because I wanted to bring them to an understanding that greater progress could be made politically than by the barrel of a gun. It was hard; a lot of it had to be done in secret and will never be known; I’ll carry it to my grave.
There are 3 things you should look at in a conflict situation. Firstly, you have to convince the people that whatever they are trying to gain by violence can be obtained more radically by diplomacy. Secondly, you must build up the fragile word “trust”. I had to show them that I was prepared to listen and talk to them and that they could trust talking to me. Thirdly, you have to take risks. We took big risks. I thought, “If I don’t do it, God will find somebody else to do it”.
Today, the situation is not exactly level, but there is peace and, for that reason, I thank my God for allowing me to play a part in it. For this, you must have courage and faith that God is a God of peace, reconciliation; that is the keyword.
Author: The Rt. Rev. the Lord Robin Eames OM
Anglican Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland (1986-2006)
Lord Eames is a distinguished religious leader who made repeated peace initiatives during Northern Ireland’s “troubles.” They all failed for 13 years amid terrible suffering and grieving, until his persistence was recognised by the men following a violent path who could see that the conflict was not going to fulfil their goals. They chose him as a trusted figure to open a dialogue. He became a passionate campaigner for the peace process, empowered by the experience of ministering to those in grief. Numerous deserved awards and accolades have followed, including the Order of Merit from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. He was raised to the peerage in 1995.