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

This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

Prince Charles in Ireland

Prince Charles's speeches in Ireland this week have been profoundly moving. It seems to me that he did three things.

Firstly, he identified with the suffering of Ireland over centuries and, particularly, more recently. He said simply that the island of Ireland “has had more than its fair share of turbulence and troubles.” Secondly, he set his own personal suffering in the context of a complex mix of politics, economics, tribalism and nationalisms. And, thirdly, he recognised the reality of pain and grief – borne by so many – whilst opening up the possibility of what an American theologian calls “newness after loss”.

The murder of Lord Mountbatten in 1979 struck to the heart of the British establishment, but for those involved in the bereavement, it was always more than a political matter. As Prince Charles put it: “It seemed as if the foundations of all that we held dear in life had been torn apart irreparably.” He had already spoken of the “anguish of such deep loss.”

This is the conundrum, isn't it? The political and the global collide with the individual and the private. Which is how grief always works – often biting through the veneers of self-sufficiency we paint on to the scars of bereavement and helplessness, and awakening the pain of personal loss in the face of a community's need to move on.

I think what the events of this week suggest is that the only way to tackle grief and the rage of injustice is for us to face those who were a part of it. In the famous Yad Vashem memorial to the Warsaw Uprising during World War Two one of the bronze reliefs depicts the Nazi guards without faces – apparently because to have given them faces would have meant humanising them. But, I thought that was actually the point. It was human beings – with faces and stories and families and hopes and dreams and regrets – who caused unimaginable pain to people who could not defend themselves. It is what we are seeing in Syria and Iraq as IS target innocent people with extreme violence and inhumane brutality.

What Tuesday's meeting demonstrated – backing up words with handshakes – was that violence and death do not have to have the final word. Realistic forgiveness – however long it takes and however immense the personal or communal cost – opens the door for all parties to be set free for a future that looked closed. Which is why, in the Lord's Prayer, any expectation of forgiveness by God is inextricably linked to my forgiving those who have grieved me.

Reconciliation is not easy and is never cost-free. The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer cried against notions of what he called “cheap grace”. But, it is in the cost of looking a person in the eye that freedom is secured – freedom to live again.

I am at Bantry in Ireland to speak at a clergy conference. So far it is everything you’d expect of Irish culture: great hospitality, generosity of spirit, humour and storytelling. The weather is beautiful and the view from the hotel out to the bay is lovely. It is totally relaxing – the clergy don’t arrive until 2pm today!

I have only ever been to Ireland once and that was to preach at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin several years ago. Since then the economic bubble has burst and Ireland’s economy has – like the invading French navy in Bantry Bay several hundred years ago – hit the rocks. The train has come off the rails, the trees have lost their leaves, the Celtic Tiger has been tranquilised.

All I really know is what I have seen on British TV – and I know that this doesn’t always reflect the full reality. (For thirty years we thought that life in Northern Ireland consisted of shootings, bombings, deprivation and bigotry – forgetting that the media are interested in the abnormal, not the normal.) But, it is evident here from the built environment that the rumours of stagnation are not being exaggerated.

My hosts here explained to me over breakfast this morning the reality: housing estates half-built and now left empty; housing developments abandoned without proper roads or utilities; landscape scarred with the icons of greed and what Shakespeare calls (of Macbeth) ‘vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself’.

While the Celtic Tiger was roaring, no one wanted to hear warnings of hubris. While the banks were lending and developers were building, no one welcomed reminders of reality or suggestions of caution. While the money flowed, those who didn’t join in the party were regarded as the spoilsports who ‘just didn’t get it’. Yet, when the Tiger lay wounded for all to see, the same people asked indignantly why no one had warned them what might happen.

For the record, many clergy and bishops (among other realists) had been warning for years that the economic boom encouraged greed, nurtured false confidence in fragile economic/financial systems and fostered fantasies of sufficiency. And all this was rooted in a false assumption that ‘things can only get better’. It seems that every generation thinks it is the ultimate – that when things are good they will remain good. Human beings are terrible at provisionality, temporal perspective and learning from life (let alone from history).

Those who warned were being prophetic. Not in the sense of predicting the future or doing spooky stuff. But, in the sense of introducing into the fantasy world a perspective of reality that reminds us of how the world actually is, how time works, that human systems are subject to forces beyond human control – even though such a suggestion is shockingly old-fashioned and feeble to some ears.

No, what the economic collapse and the subsequent shrieks of let’s-blame-someone-else horror (‘why did nobody warn us?’) demonstrate is simply that prophets are not heard while things are good. Then they are damned for not having got their message across to the deaf when things go awry. Read Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah and all the rest. Nothing is new – we have been here before, but we never learn.

So, why do I say the Tiger is tranquilised, rather than dead? Because history also teaches us that out of the current situation there will emerge people with entrepreneurial vision who will build new structures on the rubble of the old. After the pain will come renewed gain.

But, the challenge will be to keep hubris at bay, to keep the tiger harnessed, to keep the tranquilisers to hand as a reminder of what can happen when we forget our limitations and our mortality.

Ireland-for-EuropeSo, Ireland has voted in their second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. And it appears they have voted resoundingly in favour.

Two observations:

1. It’s just as well they got the answer right this time as it would have been expensive and embarrassing to keep going until they did.

2. Isn’t it amazing how principle goes out of the window when the money gets hit and you realise you might have been better off ‘in’ Europe after all? The credit crunch made all the difference and either (a) the Irish lost their sentimentality and got real, or (b) the Irish lost their independent nerve and chickened out.

It will now be interesting to see what happens next – and if President Blair actually materialises in due course.

Interesting times…