Firstly, I would like to thank all of you for the warm welcome you have given me into membership of this congregation of First Presbyterian Church, Belfast at what was a difficult time in my own journey of faith. I am not only grateful but greatly honoured to be preaching from this old and distinguished pulpit and I especially appreciate the kind invitation to address you at this deeply significant Centenary Armistice Service. Thank you to Jim McCormick for conveying the invitation, to Pamela Topping the Honorary Secretary, to Des McKeown who read the passage from Isaiah, and to all of you for your kindness.
Des read for us from Isaiah, chapter 2 and verse 4 –
“He shall judge between the nations and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
After the Armistice at the end of the First World War the League of Nations was brought into being to stop nation lifting up sword against nation as had happened at such a horrifying scale between 1914 and 1918 in what was called The Great War. Almost 20 million people perished, but the League of Nations failed to prevent another global war within a generation.
After the Second World War the United Nations was brought into being and despite a promising start in the immediate post-war years, things are again deteriorating sharply. Ban Ki-Moon, a former UN General Secretary, put it crisply –
“The world is over-armed and peace is underfunded.”
In a characteristically poignant way, Seamus Heaney, in a letter to John Montague around 2012, not long before his untimely death said –
“The world has turned into a big Ulster.”
And so it has.
Some years ago, as fathers often do, I gave a piece of advice to my three children. In fact, it was more of a plea than a piece of advice. I told them to stay close to each other because bad times were coming when the only people they could really depend upon would be family and very close friends.
You might find this strange advice from someone who has spent all his adult life working to try to bring people together to find better relationships across internecine divisions. Indeed, I was very fortunate to live in the generation that was able to find a way through our historic feud in Ireland. Not only was the long-running terrorism of the late twentieth century effectively brought to an end by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, but there is every reason to believe that while deep political divisions remain, and are being acted out in a way that not only impacts on the people of Northern Ireland but on North-South, British-Irish and European Union relations, nevertheless, I believe that we have found a way of disagreeing with each other without killing each other. We are on the way to embedding a new non-violent way of addressing our historic differences in Ireland, and on this Centenary Armistice Day, that is no small piece of progress.
So why the dark warning?
Since the later years of my experience as a politician in Northern Ireland, I have continued to devote myself to understanding terrorism and politically-motivated violence – not just analysing the processes but finding ways to address them. Like any other doctor, I am not satisfied with a diagnosis, I want to find out how to advance healing and as you know I took that medical and psychiatric approach into politics as the leader of the Alliance Party, then Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and subsequently as one of the four members of the Independent Monitoring Commission mandated to bring paramilitary activity to and end and oversee security normalization. This commitment to understanding and addressing politically motivated conflict and violence, which some might regard as a ‘furor sanandi’ (a ‘madness to heal’) has taken me to many parts of the world to explore how far the lessons I learned in Ireland, have relevance to the human propensity for inter-communal violence in other places. We were indeed a fortunate generation. It is true that people in Northern Ireland had become weary of violence, but it was the context, history, institutions and culture of the post-war European Union that made a new set of British-Irish relationships possible. In addition, the world economy was buoyant, and at that time major geo-political figures like Gorbachov, Mandela, De Klerk and Bill Clinton, and some British and Irish politicians, especially British Prime Minister, John Major and Irish Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, saw their role as one of resolving conflicts.
However, in the years after the 1998 Agreement it became clear that while we continued to build peace in Ireland, the Middle East Peace Process, which had been an encouragement to our efforts, was running into the sand, the European Project was losing momentum, and the global economy was experiencing its greatest set-back since the 1930’s.
As I involved myself in efforts to address conflicts in various parts of Europe, in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and South Asia, I began to understand more fully that we had only succeeded in Northern Ireland because the key outside stakeholders were no longer pursuing any selfish, strategic or economic interest in our affairs – instead they were trying to help us find peace, stability and reconciliation.
However, in the Middle East things were getting worse. The principles we had followed in Northern Ireland were no less relevant but, in that region the key external stakeholders insisted on pursuing selfish, strategic and economic interests instead of peace. I am constantly reminded of this as we see how the region that gave us the three great Abrahamic Faiths is fractured and dissolving into chaos.
I wrote some years ago about how long the feeling of foreboding had been developing in me, not least when I saw the publication in 2016 of the Report of the Iraq enquiry chaired by Sir John Chilcott, who I knew well from his time as the Permanent Secretary at the Northern Ireland Office and a participant in the early talks process.
After 2003 I had refused invitations from the British Government to go to Iraq because I was opposed to the approach of Prime Minister Tony Blair who went to war there. I knew it would be disastrous, and I knew that with his Northern Ireland involvement, he must have known better. However, after 2007, I engaged in a number of peace initiatives in Iraq, particularly with my friend, Padraig O’Malley, and a few other political veterans of the processes in Northern Ireland and South Africa. One of these initiatives involved us meeting, near Helsinki, in Finland, with representatives of the various parties in Iraq and reaching an agreement committing them to 12 principles based on the Mitchell Principles that were the foundation for progress in Ireland.
Leading members of Iraq’s rival Sunni and Shiite political parties participated in this ‘Helsinki Process’. Akram al-Hakim, Iraq’s Minister of State for National Dialogue was present, Sunni Arab politician Saleh al-Mutlaq and a member of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party, Humam Hammoudi, Shiite chairman of the Iraqi parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Adnan al-Dulaimi, the head of the biggest Sunni political party and representatives of Muqtada al-Sadr were all participants too.
When we went to Baghdad in July 2008 for the formal signing of the agreement, the US-supported Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki tried to create problems for us, but all the parties still signed off at a major public ceremony covered on television and attended by the international community. On his return to Belfast, Martin McGuinness said of the experience, “If you want a glimpse of what World War III would be like, it’s there on the streets of Baghdad, so I think it’s of vital importance that the process, which is now beginning to move, moves speedily.”
We had briefed the US Ambassador while we were in Baghdad, and then in October some of us travelled from Northern Ireland and South Africa to Washington DC and testified before a special hearing of the relevant panel of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, chaired by Democratic Congressman, William Delahunt. As a result, I can say with confidence that the US Government were fully aware that in 2008 an initial agreement, not only could be reached, but had been reached involving all the parties in Iraq. However, at the Congressional hearing I warned that ownership of the process by the Iraqis might not be satisfactory to America and her western allies. I was deeply concerned that if the US continued to force her priorities on the Iraqi people and blindly support Al-Maliki, they would wreck prospects for a way forward.
In 2009 we followed up with a further mission to Baghdad to build on the Helsinki II Agreement and address the continuing issue of Kirkuk but the concerns I had felt in Baghdad and had spoken about in Washington DC were sadly well-founded.
As with the Israeli-Palestinian problem, the revolution and elections in Egypt and the worsening situation in Syria, it was clear that our current crop of global leaders would continue to force forward their own agendas and were more concerned with prosecuting conflicts than resolving them. What my colleague, the late Martin McGuinness had said about World War III was right on the mark and as time passed I found myself speaking increasingly in private and in public about an “impending catastrophic conflagration”.
Some of these comments were picked up by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in his Presidential Address to the Anglican Synod in November 2015 when he said – “We will not likely ever be forgiven if this Synod turns inwards at this time of crisis, thinking only of ourselves and our own preoccupations, and that if we neglect the fact that all around us is a great struggle, described recently by Lord Alderdice, who was so instrumental in the Northern Ireland peace process. He described what is happening all around us as the Third World War.”
I have increasingly been referring to this as the “Third Global Conflict” to emphasise that it is not just a rerun of the disasters of the 20th century. In this the US and Europe are not only adopting a deeply flawed approach, they are directly contributing to the catastrophic dissolution into chaotic violent conflict across the globe.
I have continued to work on the same peace agenda in various ways. For example, in the last few years I have been working in Colombia, meeting, not only with the Government, Congress, universities and NGO’s, but also with leaders of the FARC, representatives of the UN and of course working with former President Juan Manuel Santos, who risked everything to build the Peace Process there, and who I will meet again this week in Oxford. He is taking up a Visiting Professorship this week at the Department of International Development just across Mansfield Road from Harris
Manchester College, where I am based in Oxford, and we will look to how we may cooperate in continuing to work for peace, democracy and development, not only in Colombia but elsewhere too.
Sometimes it is not possible to work directly on political negotiations. Many of our early ventures into cooperative discussions in Northern Ireland were on the social and economic needs of our communities, and just as France and Germany turned the coal and steel that they had used to make weapons of war into the basis for cooperation, first in the European Coal and Steel community and eventually into the project which became the European Union, so too, when I saw that my own efforts to negotiate in meetings with Hamas, Hezbollah, the Syrian Government, as well as the Israelis and others in the region were being consciously frustrated by outside stakeholders, my colleagues and I turned to working on the issue of water in the region – another natural resource that we believe has the potential to be a source of huge conflict, or the basis for international cooperation.
But we must address reality. The global situation I was warning my children about some years ago continues to get worse. This was, and is, not inevitable. There are other, better ways of dealing with the situation, but just now global leaders are not prepared to put shallow, selfish, short-term, strategic and economic interests to the side in favour of global peace, stability and reconciliation. That is why I recall the line attributed to the Liberal British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey in 1914, “the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life.” The lamps have already gone out in the wider Middle East and North Africa.
Let me read to you a hymn written by J Ernest Davey, subsequently tried for heresy in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland – perhaps that is part of the reason I identify so much with him. The composition was recently unearthed and brought to my attention by the Davey scholar, Paul Gilmore. It is a hymn that was published in ‘The Witness’ on 22 May 1914, just a month before the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was assassinated on 28 June, in Sarajevo, by Yugoslav nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. Within weeks the major powers were at war, and the conflict soon spread around the world. Of course, this was also in the middle of the Home Rule Crisis in Ireland so there was plenty to provoke a sensitive and thoughtful Christian to turn to God in prayer and petition.
I find it a very moving hymn, and so apposite in these times of challenge and uncertainty at home and abroad. It goes well to the wonderful tune, ‘Aurelia’, composed in 1874 by Samuel Sebastian Wesley, whose grand-uncle, John Wesley, also preached in this pulpit.
A Hymn of Faith (From: The Witness, Friday 22 May 1914)
’Mid fears and dark surmisings,
And shadowings of ill,
A Father’s love, all faithful,
All-wise, unfolds us still.
Thine eyes, their watch unsleeping
Shall never cease, O Lord;
Our times are in Thy keeping,
Our God, our fathers’ God.
Though witness false against us
Men bear on every hand;
Though ignorance and hatred
Conspire to vex our land;
Though justice seems to falter,
Yet firm our trust, O Lord;
Thy truth can never alter,
Our God, our fathers’ God.
What though the foe its legions
With threat and scorning boasts,
Our strength stands not in armour,
But in the Lord of hosts.
Then grant us courage never
To flinch, or fail Thee, Lord,
But follow steadfast ever
Our God, our fathers’ God.
Our fathers’ blood-bought freedom
We never dare betray,
Nor cast the torch Thou gavest
Of Thine own truth away.
In living or in dying
Nought shall dismay us, Lord,
Our hearts on Thee relying
Our God, our fathers’ God.
J.Ernest Davey – Published by Lindsey Press (1962)
As I listened earlier to Pamela Topping read the list of the fallen from our congregation, I was reminded of a Facebook posting this past week by David Ford, my old friend and a successor as Leader of the Alliance Party.
This is what David said –
“There has inevitably been a lot of attention given to Wilfred Owen and his poems this week, the centenary of his death. Like many others, I studied his poems for ‘O Level’ English Lit and still remember fragments and the occasional whole poem. His work encapsulates the horror of war.
Last Saturday I bought a copy of Flora Thompson’s “Lark Rise to Candleford” which I also first read while at school. For those who don’t know it, it is autobiographical, describing Flora (Laura) and her brother Edmund growing up in an Oxfordshire hamlet in the 1880s.
The final lines of the first part of the trilogy are as moving and poignant, and for me as memorable, as Owen’s poetry.
“And all the time boys were being born or growing up in the parish, expecting to follow the plough all their lives, or, at most, to do a little mild soldiering o go to work in a town. Gallipoli? Kut? Vimy Ridge? Ypres? What did they know of such places? But they were to know them, and when the time came they did not flinch. Eleven out of that tiny community never came back again. A brass late on the wall of the church immediately over the old end house seat is engraved with their names. A doubt column, five names ling, then, last and alone, the name of Edmund.”
Such was the catastrophic impact, not only on individuals and families, but on the whole sense of liberal optimism of the late Victorian times. It was this that George Dangerfield described in a book entitled ‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’. Sigmund Freud had to change his theory of human motivation and add to the sexual instincts an aggressive drive which he went on to call the Death Instinct, because there was no other way that he could explain the horrors of the trenches, the gas, and industrial scale of the slaughter.
The horrors of man’s inhumanity to man have led some to reject the notion of God, especially a Christian God of Love, altogether. A friend of mine – Bob Ripley – once the minister of the largest mainline Protestant congregation in Canada, recently wrote a book about how he moved from faith to atheism. It is entitled, ‘Life beyond Belief,’ and in it he describes how in 2007 he was leading Sunday worship in a pulpit like this and found he could no longer follow, respect, love or even believe in a God who seemed to demand, as well as oversee, the injustice and the horrors of the world.
The problem for Bob was that while he believed in evolution, he could not understand the notion of continuing reformation and more importantly an evolving revelation. It is not that God changes -The Transcendent One is unchanging – but our understanding changes of Him with every generation. It was Davey’s description of this in his book ‘The Changing Vesture of the Faith’, that led to his heresy trial, and perhaps it was some appreciation of it that resulted in his acquittal by the Church representatives, for in truth this developmental understanding is what comes from a thoughtful understanding of faith in our time. Unfortunately, of course, we do not only move forward in our understanding; sometimes we move backwards, or regress. We see this in the United States. In Barack Obama we had a thoughtful, reflective man of faith and integrity, but now we have Donald Trump who represents the opposite.
We need to understand not only the movement of understanding – the change of the way of ‘Being-in-the-World’ of communities – we also need to understand the significance of symbolism. The Transcendent One is outside of Space and outside of Time. Heaven is not a place, and eternity is not a very long time. These are just ways of us describing things that are beyond our comprehension. The language we use to speak about things that are ‘beyond understanding’ is symbolic language. When we lose that sense of the symbolic and make symbols into concrete representations, we not only fail to understand, but we have a totally mistaken understanding.
As we think about the Armistice and the terrible experiences of the War, man’s inhumanity to man, and the experiences of those who suffered are beyond our comprehension we often use the symbol of the poppy to help us focus. Why was it chosen? Well, of course the men in the north of France often saw poppies. Joan and I have a home in France and when we first moved there we saw many poppies in the garden – delicate little red flowers. They lasted only for a while and then they were gone. They came back the following year, though for a while there were only a few and we thought that they were disappearing, but then last year lots more came again – delicate but resilient – a good motif for the experience of the soldiers in the trenches. The red of the poppy also reminds us of the bloodshed of those who were injured or killed, though blood reminds us not only of death but of life too, because we are born in blood and water. It is a symbol of death and of new life. But red is also a sign of danger. It is a warning and surely when we see the poppy we should remember that it is a warning to us of the horrors of war. When we talk of remembrance, it is not only about recalling those who suffered and died for our freedom, but it is also about remembering the terrible consequences of forgetting the causes of war. The poppy is a red warning sign – red says ‘Stop! Danger!’
Jesus is for us the pre-eminent symbol of the Love of God. He shed his blood and died, but his life was not just about being a symbol of the fact that God is the Almighty One; or even that God is a God of Justice; Jesus symbolized the Love of God – that God is Love, and in these times of fear and danger, Jesus is the Prince of Peace.
Today in Paris, President Macron will bring world leaders together after the Armistice Commemoration to a Forum to talk about Peace but US President, Donald Trump, who is in Paris for the commemoration will not attend. What a turn around, and not only on this? President Trump is so unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama, who was genuinely a man of faith. However, the current French President, Emmanuel Macron, despite being the leader of one of the world’s first and most revolutionary secular states, is a man of faith and declared during a recent visit to the Vatican that –
“Nous avons, anthropologiquement, ontologiquement, métaphysiquement, besoin de la religion.” (We have, anthropologically, ontologically and metaphysically, need of religion.)
How things have changed, and indeed things do change. Nothing remains the same, and those to whom we look may no longer deserve our respect. The stone that the builder rejected can become the chief cornerstone.
Today Poles around the world will celebrate their Independence Day. In 1795, partitioned by neighbouring empires, Poland disappeared from the map of Europe. But things changed; their country returned; and Poles finally regained their long-awaited freedom on 11 November 1918.
In 70 AD Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans and the Jewish people were dispersed around the world. The state of Israel did not truly return until 1948 – almost 2,000 years later. Things can change. Nations that are exiled can again find a state, the dead can be raised, the sick can be healed, the deaf hear and the blind come to see. This is why, when we face difficulties or find that we are almost alone, He is with us, stirring us. Listen to the words of the writer to the Hebrews, in chapter 12, verses 12 to 14,
“Come then, stiffen your drooping arms and shaking knees, and keep your steps from wavering. Then the disabled limb will not be put out of joint but regain its former powers. Aim at Peace (the AV says, ‘Pursue Peace’) with all people and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.”
Thanks to Paul Gilmore we have not only a hymn today but also a prayer from J Ernest Davey which is eerily appropriate for these troubled times. It was published in The Witness on Friday 15 May 1914.
Let us close our meditation as we use his words in prayer…
A Prayer—Ulster, 1914
God of peace and God of battles,
Hear the prayer we make to Thee:
Dark around the storm is mounting,
And we know not what shall be.
In this hour of dim foreboding,
Be Thou guardian of our land;
Keep our lives, our friends, our loved ones
In the hollow of Thine hand.
Fold Thy covering wings about us,
Wings of everlasting love.
Through perplexing days direct us
With Thy wisdom from above.
Nerve our coward wills to daring,
Give us grace to spurn the wrong:
We are weak, but Thou canst make us
Stronger even than the strong.
Keep us pure in heart and honour
That we seek Thee not in vain;
Keep us fearless, knowing always
Thou omnipotent dost reign.
God of peace and God of battles,
Thou hast made and Thou wilt bear;
So undoubting we commit us
To the shelter of Thy care.
And all the people said – “Amen!”