Irish Council of Churches. Irish Inter-Church Meeting

A Moment of Truth–telling

Dr Fergus O’Ferrall






In the fifth of a series of blog articles, Dr Fergus O’Ferrall makes the case for a new and fundamental ecumenical reformation in, and by, our Churches focused on concepts such as reconciliation, forgiveness, justice, peace and human flourishing as we seek to break the bondage to the past and to create hope for a shared and flourishing future.

The current situation demands that 2018 be the moment of truth– it is a Kairos moment of crisis but it is also one of grace and opportunity. The moment of truth ought to compel each branch of the Church of Jesus Christ to analyse carefully the particular aspects of their different denominational theologies as to whether these continue to contribute to sectarian divisions which in turn underpin the divided identities and loyalties of the population of Northern Ireland. Our present Kairos moment calls for a response from Christians that is biblical, spiritual, pastoral and, above all, prophetic. Jesus calls his followers to ‘read the signs of the times’ (Matt.16:3) and to ‘interpret this Kairos or present time’ (Luke 12:56). 

Truth–telling about identities and aspirations….

The potential shared future is being stalled by bondage to the past. This bondage manifests itself in prevailing mind–sets. People vote as they do in order to protect their inherited identities and the kind of future that such identities suggest to them. Those who are Catholic and nationalist desire an Irish identity and an all–island framework for the future to safeguard their identity. Those who are Protestant and unionist desire a British identity and a Union with the United Kingdom to safeguard their identity. The problem is that such mutually conflicting hopes for the future seem to people on both sides to be impossible to reconcile: this has bedevilled relationships on the island and between Ireland and the United Kingdom.

The past violent and oppressive struggles between these identities have powerfully entrenched in current mind–sets a zero–sum contest between them. However, these historic nationalist and unionist identities appear frozen in a world that has radically changed and continues to change: historic desired or feared futures are not now available options in terms suggested by nationalist or unionist mentalities formed in the past. The Republic of Ireland has changed so very significantly that any historic fears of ‘Rome Rule’ are now evidently unfounded. The United Kingdom has been so transformed that many of its laws appear unacceptable to Northern Ireland’s unionists. The Republic has no irredentist interest in compelling Northern Ireland to unite with it and is committed to the principle of consent in determining any future change in the status of Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom declares it has no selfish strategic, economic or political interest in Northern Ireland and it too is committed to the principle of consent. Both the Republic and the United Kingdom have greatly changed and have become liberal, open, multicultural and generally tolerant societies – societies that many in Northern Ireland appear to be very uncomfortable about joining or replicating in Northern Ireland if truth be told. 

The Belfast Agreement sets a framework for pluralism in regards to identities: people in Northern Ireland may identify themselves as Irish or British or both Irish and British: they may hold both British and Irish citizenship and this unique arrangement will not be affected by any change in the status of Northern Ireland. Furthermore, if in the future Northern Ireland decides to unite with the Republic of Ireland in some form – not necessarily in a unitary state for it might be a federal arrangement– it will automatically become part of the European Union. This opportunity for plural identities is not available to any other part of the United Kingdom nor is it available to citizens of the Republic. There is therefore an opportunity in Northern Ireland to end zero sum mind–sets and see that both communities in Northern Ireland with imagination might enjoy multiple identities. This should be seen as an invitation to learn about the histories and cultures of each tradition so that identities are not threatened but enriched as consultation and reflection occurs about future political and economic relationships.

These posts are based on an address delivered to the Omagh Churches’ Forum on 19th September 2018.