A young radio journalist stops citizens and asks them if they think Catholics should continue to join The Police Service of Northern Ireland. The First Minister, an evangelical Protestant, attends the funeral mass of a murdered police officer and makes headline news. That Catholics joining the police service and the attendance of the First Minister at a Catholic ritual for the dead are both newsworthy confirm the confessional character of the Northern Ireland state. Photographs of an array of political leaders from Irish and British nationalist parties appear on newspaper front pages following the funeral. Behind them stand senior Christian church leaders, in a powerful demonstration of community opposition to the murder of the police officer. The two arrays are also a powerful demonstration of the proximity of Church and State in Northern Ireland. And, for both of them, of their proximity to force, as represented by the police officers all around them, many of them armed, and all of them paying their respects to their dead colleague.
There are, however, gaps, within and between, the serried ranks. Gaps between fact and aspiration. Northern Ireland is an integral part of The United Kingdom, a fact made manifest in the uniform of the police officer being buried; in the Executive and Assembly the politicians run; in the civil authorities the Church leaders petition to fund their schools and in the taxes and benefits the State negotiates with the citizens attending the funeral. The aspiration of many of the citizens present is that it be other. Their aspiration is that Northern Ireland not be an integral part of The United Kingdom but be re-united with The Republic of Ireland, as it was pre-1922, but now as a new republic.
The gap between this fact and this aspiration is narrowed by the killing of the police officer, according to the perpetrators of the bombing that claimed his life. It is not, according to the people at the funeral and the vast majority of people across Ireland. Rather is it narrowed by shows of solidarity – strength? force? - involving politicians, church leaders and police from across Ireland. Who is right? Who will prevail?
Massive condemnation of the murder floods radio phone-in programmes, newspaper letter pages, social network websites and tv panel shows. The murder of the police officer highlights the problem of violence and the challenge of evil. Some of the people attending the funeral have an ambiguous relationship, as perpetrators and supporters, with political and institutional violence. Some will say 'that was then, this is now', which simply affords permission for acts of violence depending on time and circumstances. A political ex-prisoner on one radio phone-in refuses to condemn the murder and says he understands why people did it. He is vilified by the programme presenter and many other callers for his understanding. When he brings up the problem of the use of violence in relation to Libya he is shouted down, castigated for bringing up another, different problem, which it patently is not. There seems to be no role for understanding, no sense that someone who has an understanding of why such an evil act was perpetrated could contribute to getting such acts to stop.
Church leaders appeal to their texts, oblivious to understanding:
'And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.' (King James Bible, Philippians 4:7)
So we must make a law that serves,
A law that all citizens deserve.
And arguments must take account.
Of every voice, within, without.
This city is a divided place.
And law and policing must the future face.
Can we create the rule of safety
From the changing needs of our security? (Without the Walls, Dave Duggan, 1998)
An answer to the young radio journalist's question: more atheists, agnostics, political sceptics and people with understanding to join The Police Service of Northern Ireland?