In a war-torn Christian citadel, forgiveness is the exception

In a war-torn Christian citadel, forgiveness is the exception

THE RELATIVES of Gerard McKinney, one of the 13 people shot dead by the British army on the day in January 1972 known as Bloody Sunday, stand out among the scores of families whose existence was blighted by those events (some are pictured above). Explaining that “we are a very religious family”, the son and daughter of the victim said earlier this month that they had pardoned the killer in their hearts and had no desire to see him prosecuted. “I believe in forgiveness,” insisted Kevin McKinney, a trade unionist who was 11 when his father died.

In the city known in many official contexts as Derry-Londonderry (reflecting Catholic-Protestant differences over its proper name), that is probably a minority view. John Kelly, whose 17-year-old brother Michael died in the mayhem, is adamant that he cannot forgive. As education officer at the Free Derry Museum, he was one of those who described this week’s decision to charge one ex-soldier over the 1972 killings as satisfying, and yet at the same time very disappointing because at least four more prosecutions had been expected.

“They [the soldiers who fired] have not asked for forgiveness, they have shown no remorse, and if I said I forgave them I would not be telling the truth,” said Mr Kelly. “I accept other people’s right to say they forgive, but they must also accept my right not to forgive.” As he sees things, the soldiers who pulled the trigger 47 years ago should be treated in the same way as any other murderer. The fact that so many years have gone by was an argument for urgency, not for letting bygones be bygones. Among the Catholic Irish-nationalists who now make up an overwhelming majority of the city, that is a fairly common view.

On the opposing side of the conflict which first erupted with street battles in this city, and then raged across Northern Ireland for 30 years, there are plenty of others who cannot find it in their hearts to forgive. Or as they might put it, they feel that morally absolving the killers would be trivialising their loss or dishonouring their loved ones. Take the 29-year-old mother who was shot dead in 1981 as she went about her work as a census-taker: the Irish Republican Army had vowed to stop the census. Three decades later, her husband said he could not forgive the people who left him to bring up their one-year-old alone, and deprived Joanne Mathers of many years of happy life. 

Here is a paradox. In this rainy city, two things are palpable in the atmosphere: the legacy of war over the centuries, and a deeply Christian heritage, with impressive Anglican and Catholic churches dominating the skyline. Whereas Belfast owes its emergence to Victorian heavy industry, Derry never quite forgets that it was established, according to local tradition, as a monastic settlement. Its founder, a monk known as Columba or Columcille who died in 597, is said to have undertaken his mission to convert Scotland to Christianity in a spirit of remorse over the many people who died in a huge inter-tribal battle in Ireland where his own side had prevailed.

Derry’s more recent inter-communal wars may have been fought along sectarian lines (with Catholics broadly aligned with Irish nationalism and Protestants with pro-British sentiment) but the churches now collaborate closely to promote reconciliation, and even the testing notion of forgiveness. In the current, penitential season of Lent, sermons remind the faithful of the hard Christian teaching that people cannot expect to be forgiven by God unless they forgive the sins of those who have wronged them. For Catholics, the forgiveness of personal sins involves a procedure: an expression of remorse and possibly some penance or act of expiation which can lead to near-certainty of being forgiven. Some forms of Protestantism continue to emphasise the absolute need for retribution. But the essential message is the same: we must pardon in order to be pardoned. 

As one response to the legacy of Bloody Sunday and many other bloody days, an Anglican archdeacon, Robert Miller, and a Catholic priest, Paul Farren, work together to promote the idea that forgiveness does not mean wiping out the past or playing down the enormity of the wrongs committed. They explictly reject, as too trite, the slogan “forgive and forget”. As Archdeacon Miller put it this week:

Our society yearns for peace. Occasionally, victims have been portrayed as a problem [which] is preventing peace. Some in our society want the complexity of our bloody conflict to be lost by forgetting. I think they are wrong. Our future should be built on remembering. We should remember the pain of the past without being bound by it…Forgiveness will not ignore what has happened. It remembers, daily even, and yet it robs perpetrators of any power over us. And that can prove truly liberating.

As people in Derry ponder these tough spiritual messages, inspiring to some and unacceptable to others, a hard truth is coming home. The relative peace that Northern Ireland has enjoyed for the last quarter-century, after a ceasefire in 1994 and a political settlement in 1998, was built on a kind of amnesia or agreement to differ about the recent past. That holiday from remembrance is over and somehow the past has to be negotiated without poisoning the future.

See also
A prosecution over Bloody Sunday is announced (March 14th 2019)

.