So important 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 interest.
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 invitation?
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.
And 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.
We 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.
We 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 very moderate.
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 together.
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 Ireland.
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