Northern Ireland: The wobbly road towards reconciliation

The peace process in Northern Ireland is in another wobbly period: the Good Friday agreement (1998), which started out as power sharing between Catholics and Protestants in a common constitutional framework, could now either consolidate or crumble. Creating occasions for reciprocal dialogue and understanding has been a principal aim of the little Iona Jesuit community present for twenty years in Portadown, a town south of Belfast. Here the Catholic minority (about 20%) has traditionally been marginalised and, in recent years, traumatised by very tough political and occasionally bloody confrontations, especially during the explosive marching season in July. 

The community is made up of three Jesuits from the Irish and British Provinces, and works to diminish the importance of differences, in favour of consensus and reconciliation and for more equal living conditions. The relative peace of this year’s Protestant march may be a signal that both sides have grown weary of the violence, said Iona member Michael Bingham SJ. Yet the troubles have marked everyone, especially the young people, many of whom want to leave. One of the Iona Jesuits serves on a Task Force set up in response to a rash of young male suicides. They help to promote the PACE programme (Protestant and Catholic Encounter) among people of local churches and maintain good relations with the Protestant clergy. They also contribute to concrete non-confessional projects, for example, a new “Health House” planned to promote healthy living and offer support and therapy for those affected by the troubles.