Giant in Columba’s Land


“In those days, there were giants in the earth” (from Genesis 6:4). There are still rare giants today, too, and this post observes the recent passing of one on March 20. To those who know the story of St. Columba, the great sixth century Irish warrior who renounced violence and devoted the rest of his life to spreading peace and the Good News, the story of Martin McGuinness will seem familiar.

McGuinness was born in Derry, in the north of Ireland, part of the six (out of 32) counties still under English occupation. He came to manhood at a time known as the Troubles, when some sought to overthrow the occupation by violent means, and he quickly rose to leadership among them. To summarize, the struggle of the IRA (=Irish Republican Army) continued for a long time against not only the English, but against opposing forces in the North who were committed to remaining in the United Kingdom. Decades of violence produced no solutions to a conflict with roots going back for centuries, but caused pain and heartache in many homes.

Finally, as St. Columba, McGuinness came to the realization that it was better to “give peace a chance,” for reasons, as Bill Clinton noted in his eulogy, “both principled and practical.” But to do so was not as simple as a change of mind. First, the IRA had to be convinced to try. While it had a political arm, democracy was not working well in northern Ireland. For much of the time, most representative government had been suspended. Even when it functioned, the minority status in the North of the “Republicans” (i.e. those wanting to join with the Irish Republic) meant they were simply outvoted by the “Unionists” (i.e. those wanting to stay in the United Kingdom). For peace to hold, the IRA would have to accept compromise, the largest being the continuation of the United Kingdom.

The second challenge was to convince the English, who saw the IRA as “terrorists” and wanted to lock them up as dangerous criminals. The third obstacle was the Unionists, opponents in a radically polarized and segregated society, who saw the suppression of the IRA as the only way to survive as a people and preserve their way of life. To expect the Unionists, whose slogan is “No Surrender,” to make significant compromises was regarded, with justification, as wild optimism.

Once committed to a concept, McGuinness was not easily deterred. His relaxed demeanor hid a determined mindset. Bit by painful bit, a peace plan began to take shape. The English government had changed, and was now open to compromise and listening. Outside mediators such as former Senator George Mitchell from the U.S. came to give skillful help. The leader of the Unionists at the time also came to see the value in peace. Even more than McGuinness, he had to deal with factions in his own group who were adamant that only absolute suppression was an acceptable means to peace.

But it finally happened. All but a small minority turned in their guns and a local parliamentary government was constructed with defined spots for each. McGuinness first became the Minister for Education, and another side of him emerged. Schools in the North are sectarian, either Catholic or Protestant. He became a vociferous advocate for underfunded poor schools, equally as much for the Protestant ones as the Catholic ones. To quote Clinton, McGuinness’ vision “saw it was possible to have unity with diversity, he expanded those who were ‘us’ and shrunk those who were ‘them.”
Then Unionist backlash tossed out the more moderate Unionists and elected the Rev. Ian Paisley, a veteran firebrand Presbyterian preacher, whose view of Catholics began with his view that the Pope is the anti-Christ. McGuinness became Deputy First Minister, the second most important position, as had been agreed beforehand. But it did not look promising.

What happened is viewed by many as a miracle. It is certainly a major tribute to the personal skills of McGuinness, and credit also must be given to Paisley. But it turned out the two got along famously and managed conflict so well, they were nicknamed “the chuckle brothers.” When Paisley passed on, McGuinness continued with a new First Minister, an arrangement that ended, not in sectarian conflict but in his unwillingness to accept what he saw as corruption. Perhaps it is a sign of real peace that the Northern Ireland government now has the luxury of arguing about things like corruption.

By then, McGuinness’ health was gone. In January, a visibly ill McGuinness resigned and returned to his home in Bogside (not all Irish names are lilting and romantic). His funeral last week was at his home parish, St. Columba’s (a fitting name for the church of Columba’s disciple). In his sermon, his pastor noted the example of the famous St. Paul’s in London, designed by the notable architect Christopher Wren, who lies buried in the crypt. On the crypt, the priest reported, there is a plaque stating, “If you would know the works of this man, look around you” at, of course, the spectacular architecture. He then applied that to McGuiness as he lay there in his casket. Looking around, you could see thousands of people, inside and outside the church. Beyond that was a wide spectrum of the world, former President Bill Clinton, the past and present Taoisigh (Prime Ministers) of Ireland, a cabinet minister representing the British Prime Minister, and a range of other world dignitaries, together with official condolences from the Queen. Perhaps most telling, the Unionist leadership was there, from the First Minister on, the enemy loved, who could now love in return.

Ian Paisley, junior, the son of the Unionist mentioned above, put it this way: “As a Christian, as someone who reflects on life, it is not how you start your life, but how you finish your life.”
In all this, Martin McGuinness was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things. As Gerry Adams pointed out, he did not go to war as a youth, it came to him, as the Bogside became a battleground. He remained an ordinary man, a family man, fisherman, sports fan, and good neighbor, through it all. But to achieve peace, he had to become a giant.

I suppose the issues in Columba’s day are now too remote for us to draw much from in terms of lessons for ourselves. It is a good thing to have another Irishman set before us. As our nation devolves into bitter polarized conflict, we could learn from this brief biography. Fighting for your faction in hopes that it will smite the enemy is the lifestyle of the Old Testament, which advises “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” It results only, as Gandhi noted, in a lot of blind and toothless people. Israelis and Palestinians are giving us a demonstrated of how this works.

Instead, the Lord’s earth needs those who contend for peace, led by the Prince of Peace who earned that title the hard way. With that in mind, remember the road to peace is seldom peaceful. But it is the highway made straight for the Lord. In those ways in which we can take the leadership of peace, can reach out to those whose issues make them our enemies, the Lord bends our will from strife to love, from anger to forgiveness, from condemnation to constructive ways forward. If Martin McGuinness could do that in the perpetual battleground of Northern Ireland, surely we can do it here. It is time.

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