By Father Des Wilson (for Andersonstown News)
If Pope Benedict and Queen Elizabeth visit Ireland each of them will have a chance to offer us a courtesy which has been too long delayed.
Queen Elizabeth could admit and apologise for a multitude of offences against our people: invasions, repressions, bad laws and refusal to create democratic rule either in her country or in ours. Pope Benedict could admit and apologise for the ‘handing over’ of Ireland to an English king at a time when European nations believed - wrongly - that a pope had the authority to do that. This unlawful hand-over of our people to a king gave excuse and encouragement for future oppressions. If such admissions and apologies are made, the way will be open for new relationships between us all, internationally and at home.
Political relationships between Ireland and Britain have been at times cruel, between Irish people and the Vatican mostly one-sided and often hurtful. In the recently-ended thirty-years war the Vatican was not very helpful in removing the causes of the war or creating peace. During the thirty-years war which preceded the Withdrawal of the Earls four centuries ago Irish people were presumed to be fighting for the Pope as well as for religion and culture, but the treatment of the Earls when they reached Rome made it clear that the Papal court - and it was a monarchical court with its own army, finance and foreign policy - was willing to give sympathy and limited personal hospitality but little else.
And in a much later struggle which included a battle on the Boyne, the Pope of that time supported the Dutch King William, even with money.
So some of our history is not happy. In recalling such things we need - just as we need in dealing with current affairs - a kind heart and a sharp mind. We know where we would like our friends to be, but we also know where our friends actually are. That is why both Pope and Queen should be invited to make a real peace between us all, rather than be invited just to visit. A papal or royal visit without such courteous admission and gestures on their part will mean we are asked to honour and applaud them, while they do and give nothing in return. That is not good enough. Our unionist friends can say, we gave our allegiance to royalty and what did we get in return? Catholics can say, we gave our allegiance to popes and what did we get in return? Can all of us hope, then, that our loyalty to leaders will be answered by their loyalty to us?
Some people’s loyalty meant they were often excluded from work and houses and even districts, sometimes excluded from life; other people’s loyalty meant they were made to reject their fellow citizens, make enemies of their friends. If royal or papal visits are designed to recognise our people’s dignity, to make amends for an often wretched past, to help us create a brilliant future that is worthy of all our people, well and good. If, however, they are simply for sending volumes of respect and courtesy and praise in one direction only, then we would be better not to have them.
There are plenty of significant gestures both of these authoritative people could make on a visit to Ireland. So what they do can be judged by how generous it is. In other words, without a great generosity in word and deed, the only welcome such visitors need receive is one of cold formality.
But with significant generous gestures on all sides, Irish people know well how to welcome them both.