The Bishop of Clogher in Ireland published in the Daily Telegraph today an open letter to the Prime Minister. John McDowell’s diocese straddles the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – post-Brexit the border between the European Union and the United Kingdom. This is the text of his letter which I post with his permission:

Dear Prime Minister,

Now that the campaigning has ended and the governing must begin I wanted to write to you about the matter of the Border on the island of Ireland, which is close to where I live. Indeed, the Diocese of Clogher, which I serve, includes all of County Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland and County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that my Diocese transcends the Border.

No doubt many others representing many people and interests will have communicated with you on this subject before. So I would first reassure you that I am writing as someone who has always recognised the almost impossible difficulties and stresses placed on those who have a vocation to public life, particularly politicians.

I cannot claim to represent a huge electorate or to have any specialist knowledge. But sometimes an individual should say things which might otherwise go unheard in the cacophony of other, better-known voices; the alternative would be to simply wither in the silence of exhaustion.

As Bishop of Clogher, I have a vocation to care for people on both sides of the Border and a responsibility to pray for both British and Irish Heads of State and their peoples, day by day. Although that is principally a spiritual job of work, it would be hypocritical of me to pray for something without actively working to achieve it. Besides, spiritual wellbeing needs a material basis on which to live.

So, although our priorities and the methods we use to achieve them may be different, I think it is fair to say that our goals overlap; nowhere more so than in the current difficulties surrounding Brexit and the Border, which (very worryingly) give every impression of escalating towards a crisis. For those of us old enough to have lived through longest civil conflict in post-War Europe, the very word “escalation” is resonant with overtones of lived horror and real tragedy. As such, it is reassuring that those in power on both sides have repeated their desire to find answers to the Brexit/Border conundrum problems that protect what has been achieved here since 1998.

What your Government chooses to do to that end will be inevitably one of historical magnitude.

Government’s role is to use the very substantial resources of the State to sift evidence, consider policy options and plan a way forward. In so doing it should take into account the needs of society as a whole, i.e. to seek the common good. In light of this, the worst thing a Government can be is irresponsible or careless. No Government should commit a country to a course of action in which the consequences were so opaque as to be incalculable. It would, therefore, be both logically and morally correct for a Prime Minister to give deep pause before allowing a no-deal Brexit.

But I principally wanted to write to you about the Border.

The Border and the problems which it poses for any form of Brexit are not only technical or technological issues.  Nor are they simply issues to do with trade or security matters. Expressed in the starkest terms, the Border is the background against which all political and much cultural life in Northern Ireland (and in a more limited way in the Republic of Ireland) is worked out. Some people like the Border and others do not, but positively or negatively, consciously or unconsciously, it is pivotal to how politicians and people here assess almost all policy alternatives.

For this reason alone, any big change which has an impact on the Border is unavoidably complicated and inevitably charged with emotional and symbolic significance.

After a period of relative obscurity, it now appears that everybody is fascinated by the Border. It is interesting, for a while, to be at the centre of the world’s attention. But on the whole I think many of us would rather have been left alone.

For a political border, it is very beautiful in places. That is largely because of the hundreds of small farms looked after by hundreds of sturdy farmers along its length. There isn’t much money in it for most of them, but if you ask them why they don’t move to somewhere less difficult to farm they say “You can’t roll up the land and take it with you”. The long term well-being of men and women like these, and their neighbours all along the border, requires and deserves a clearly spelt-out, sustainable agreement between both sides. This is so that they have not only that material basis necessary for civilised living but also hope for their children’s future. Neither peace nor prosperity are possible without hope.

I think it was the great English public figure and man of Letters Thomas Babbington Macauley who said of Ireland that “the molten lava of the past flows hot and dangerous under the thin crust of the present”.

The ground on which people build and grow in the Border region feels particularly fragile today. It is almost possible to feel the heat of the past burning the soles of our feet. So, please, in your consideration of the future of this place: tread carefully.  And with deep and genuine concern I would ask you to be very conscious of the legacy your Government will leave.

Rt Revd. John McDowell is bishop of Clogher

26 July 2019

I spent this week in Bantry, Ireland, speaking at a clergy conference for the Diocese of Cork, Cloyne & Ross. As with all speaking engagements, I worried beforehand about how it would go, how many would fall asleep or find what I was saying irrelevant to them. The Irish context is very different from the one in which I serve in South London and East Surrey.

I needn’t have worried. Four days of ‘work’ turned into four days of laughing, relaxing, thinking and … er … drinking. They made me welcome, included me in all they did and made it one of the most relaxing and enjoyable conferences I have done.

And these guys not only know how to ‘be the church’ along the southern coast of Ireland, but they also know how to entertain. I only have Father Ted to go on, but the reputation of the Irish for storytelling is spot on. I left the bar late each evening, still laughing at people’s natural funniness. I won’t quickly forget the rector who sang Monty Python’s Philosophers Song with one hand over his ear.

But, it occurred to me that most people’s idea of attending a clergy conference is probably of something intense and tedious. That isn’t the case. These are people who engage with the whole of life: the celebratory bits and the deep shit of some people’s (and communities’) life. They know how to laugh as well as weep – and they love life for all it’s worth.

I was thinking about this earlier today when I went into Western House to do Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2. I was having a chat with a guy outside the studio. He had been telling a story about the so-called ‘mile high club’ when a colleague interrupted and suggested the ‘religious correspondent’ (i.e. me) should close his ears. I replied that, contrary to popular thought, I do live in the real world and am not easily shocked. (If I am going to be shocked, it has to be something more inhuman than celebrities having sex in an aircraft toilet – not the epitome of romance exactly.)

This is why I love clergy. The popular reputation bears little resemblance to the gritty reality with which most of us live from day to day. We do not live in a rarefied bubble, cut off from anything that might disturb our limited and romantic world view. In fact, one of the recurring themes of my four sessions at the Cork conference was to take seriously the implications of the central dynamic of Christian faith: God takes the initiative and comes to us – God searches for Adam in the Garden (Genesis 3); God comes among us in Jesus of Nazareth; the ‘heavenly city’ comes down to earth and not vice versa (Revelation 21). In other words, the mandate of the Christian Church (the ‘body of Christ’ – which, presumably, is supposed to resemble the Christ we read about in the Gospels?) is to get stuck into the world with all the muckiness this involves and to stop worrying about our purity. Rather than fearing contamination by the dodgy stuff, Jesus thought about contaminating the world with goodness.

So, I am grateful to the wonderful Irish clergy I met; grateful to Chris Evans and the guys I met this morning; grateful to be catching up on my emails and paperwork on my day off. (One of those statements is a lie…)