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Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward, discussed Pope Benedict’s interest in Northern Ireland and the possibility of his visit there.
BY EDWARD PENTINREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
has the Catholic Church been in the successful peace process in Northern
Ireland that Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward,
made a special journey May 20 to personally thank Pope Benedict XVI and the
Vatican for being supportive.
Woodward discussed long-term peace
prospects and the possibility of the Pope visiting Northern Ireland.
What has been the purpose of
your visit to Rome?
My trip is to continue my dialogue
with the Vatican [officials] who have been extremely helpful in building a
peace process in Northern Ireland and to thank the Pope for his continued
It was extraordinary today to see
from the Pope the level of his interest in Northern Ireland, his concern for
the murders that happened in Northern Ireland in March of this year, for the
families, of course, who were devastated by the murder of their loved ones, and
his interest in maintaining the peace process in Northern Ireland. I was able
to echo the prime minister’s invitation to the Pope when he was here in Italy
in February, that the Pope would think of coming to the United Kingdom.
We’d love to have him, and I was
also able to express my hope that he would think of coming to Northern Ireland.
But that’s a matter for the Pope.
What was his response to the
Well, we discussed a number of
issues, but, very clearly, it’s something on his mind. But there are some
matters that the Pope should rightly be allowed to decide on because he makes
very good judgments about when the time is right.
But I think what Northern Ireland
has demonstrated is that it’s possible to transform something that was once an
impossible situation into a beacon of hope, not only for Northern Ireland, but
also for people around the world.
I think for a young Palestinian boy
or girl or an Israeli boy or girl growing up today they can look at Northern
Ireland and they can dream of something that may happen to them, too, because
it doesn’t have to be like that.
There doesn’t have to be violence,
division and sectarianism. It can be different. That’s the great thing about
Northern Ireland. And the Catholic Church has played a very important role in
bringing that about.
It’s said that on the official
level all is well, but there’s still a lot of work to be done at the grassroots
level. How true is that?
You cannot expect 300 years of
division to disappear because people signed two agreements, but what you can do
is see palpably when those murders that happened in March of this year — those
handful of criminals who murdered the soldiers and a police officer who hope to
stall a peace process, hope to stall a political process — that not just the
politicians were united, but the entire community of Northern Ireland.
Catholics and Protestants alike came
together and said, “We don’t want this violence; we don’t want to go back to
those dreadful days.”
We have a new Northern Ireland, a
new future, a shared future that belongs to us, and to the men of violence,
they said: “Go away.”
What will be the most important
steps in the peace process in the coming months?
What we have to do as the British
government, and with the Irish government, is continue to support the political
parties and leaders in Northern Ireland as they build confidence in their
communities across the issues that remain to be resolved.
there’s one big issue: When will political parties in Northern Ireland ask me
to hand my powers of policing and justice to the politicians there? That’s
something for them to work out.
will do all we can to help them, whether it’s through helping with finance or
helping to build community confidence, we will do that. And together with our
partners in the Irish government, this is something on which we will stand with
political leaders in Northern Ireland and also work with the American
government, which has always been a staunch ally for peace and stability and
prosperity in Northern Ireland.
will all work together to bring it about. So when the time is right, devolution
will be completed, which I hope will be sooner rather than later.
What were the reactions of the
loyalist and unionist communities after the recent murders? They seemed to be
Everybody was very moderate.
Although they were two very young British soldiers who were murdered, the
police officer was a Catholic.
It was striking how everybody
tempered what might have been an exchange of words with a visible show of
unity. Perhaps the most striking impression of the real progress we’ve made are
two images: one of Peter Robinson, the Unionist, and Martin McGuinness, a
Republican, of course, standing together with the chief constable of the PSNI
(Police Service of Northern Ireland) and talking about condemning murders
The second image was seeing a
Catholic priest in Antrim lead those in his church on a Sunday out onto the
streets where the Protestant army soldiers had been murdered. That was so
moving, and it told a story so clearly: that today this is a different Northern
We’re talking about a different
generation and yet the same people. There’s been a transformation. It was Iain
Paisley who stood in the House of Commons in the days after the murders of the
army boys and praised the Catholic priest. So we’re in a different place, a new
world, one of understanding and reconciliation.
It’s a good world, and the British
government — and I know I can also speak for the Irish government on this — we
will do everything we can to strengthen that and let the people of Northern
Ireland enjoy the same peace and prosperity as people anywhere else in the world.
Edward Pentin writes