PJHR Peace Leadership Award
By Raymond Lennon

Thanks for being here this evening. Tonight also marks the launch of the 15th year of the Peace Justice and Human Rights program immersion experience by John Carroll University students in Belfast. Peace, Justice, and Human Rights: they really go together like love and marriage. You can’t have one without the other!

Ireland can offer itself as a practical example of how a breakdown can occur. But it can be repaired, and it is still being repaired painstakingly. Of course, it would have been better for it not to have happened at all. That is why we should work hard on the issues around peace, human rights, and justice.

I am often asked why some people chose to pursue their aims by violent means, since in Belfast the vast majority did not. I have considered many reasons: cowardice, lack of a strong commitment to ideals, parental admonitions, fear, the loss of a job if caught, the loss off your life if ultimately caught by a bomb or bullet. The chances of death were above average in Belfast when the Troubles broke out, so why would we add to the prospect of an early grave?

The real answer for me, though it may sound very simplistic, is that I do believe that there was an alternative to the violence option. My personal faith as a Catholic had a lot to do with this decision.
I had to juxtapose this decision to be a pacifist against the urge to fight—even if I had had the guts to do it.

All the aims of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960s in Northern Ireland had been acknowledged before the IRA transformed the struggle in its renewed campaign for national unity. This is a critical point. The IRA’s last campaign ended without popular support. But in a critical period during 1970, their aims widened utterly. It was to become a restored fight for the national reunification of the island of Ireland.

However, I (and the vast majority of people) could see that the power of non-violence—the example of Martin Luther King and similar civil rights issues in other countries, Gandhi in India, plus the power of the media to inform and persuade others—would perhaps pressurize the British to look again at its own backyard.

But can I take you back to those days in Belfast as the Troubles got underway? I want you to picture a scene. Imagine your own feelings where you live because the scene that I describe is where I actually lived in Belfast. Britain had introduced internment, i.e. imprisonment without trial. People were rounded up and held in detention, based on the word of a senior police officer who suspected the person might be a terrorist.

On the morning of internment, my loyalist neighbours who lived close by—I lived on what is known as an “interface”—were involved in a kind of mob frenzy. I recall the panic in my home when hordes of people with cudgels were smashing windows and bursting open doors nearby in a “Kristallnacht” type of eviction of their Catholic neighbours. Some of our loyalist neighbours were actually pointing out to the mob which houses were “Catholic.”

I vividly recall the chanting as men in the attackers sang “You surrender or you’ll die” to a well-known hymn tune. I rang desperately for police, but because of the internment operation, no help was available. We stood and watched, and tried to gather our valued small things awaiting our fate, for it was clear we were to be evicted too.

Then a solitary armoured personnel carrier—British Army—appeared from nowhere. Six young British soldiers jumped out and the frenzied mob halted their activity and simply melted away, leaving a completely wrecked neighbourhood behind, on which they had been venting their anger.

Why had our neighbours become such enemies? Why were they so frightened of us that they supported attempts to drive us out even though none of us had supported a violent path?

I asked myself how the words of others fed the actions of that mob? How many other minorities have died because of the words of others? The speeches of Hitler, Mussolini, the other fundamentalists of whatever hue who led their people into war. And what about other people who have died because of their beliefs or orientation? Tossed from buildings, beaten up in alleyways, throats cut, gassed in Death camps, riddled with bullets at a disco? Thousands upon thousands upon thousands! Their deaths occurred because of attitudes formed and exhibited in minds that labelled them as “other.”

Why must we continue to live a life without choosing our words as a loving, caring people? What can we ever learn from these consequences? In the United States, with respect, I think we need to hear these types of stories.

I had started my teaching career just one year after the events I’ve just described. My high school was used as a base for outdoor fun activities for the youth of the area during the summer holiday in 1972. The previous school year had been punctuated by awful violence and hundreds of deaths.

I can remember standing in my classroom trying to teach, while at the same time puffs of smoke and blasts were occurring in the city below. My room had an amazing view of the city, an uninterrupted view of Belfast. With each blast, the children would anxiously rush to the windows to try to locate the latest bomb. Of course gunfire was often heard, and in this state of community turmoil, education was proving very challenging to deliver.

However, the High School itself was an oasis of calm and normality. Michael Murphy was our principal teacher. Such an inspiration of a man. On one occasion at assembly he admonished the gathered school about the fact that a bike had been stolen from the bicycle shed. He said that this was intolerable (in the context of the bombings and shootings we teachers thought it was trivial). But Michael was determined to have this bike returned! On and on he went about the disgraceful theft, the poor boy needing his bike so badly, the awful things that would happen to whoever stole the bike. The bad luck, the sin of it all! The only thing that would redeem this situation would be for the boy who stole the bike to bring it back to his office next morning first thing! He said he knew who the boy was!

The next morning thirteen bikes (and their thieves) were lined up outside the Principal’s office. And each of the thieves had these words on his lips “Is it I, Lord”?

Up to this point in my first year as a teacher the school had been a sanctuary. This was respected by the British Army, the Police and the paramilitaries. When one considers the multiplicity of forces involved—for the paramilitaries alone were myriad—it’s quite astonishing that this sanctuary status of school was respected. Schools shared this distinction of neutrality with church buildings.

Children who were perhaps rioting or who had been under house arrest during searches by Army forces or who themselves were out on night duty with paramilitaries, these same children arrived for school often late and utterly respected the school rules and sanctions and indeed many of them excelled academically or went to an early grave.

Teachers succeeded in maintaining the security and trust of the pupils throughout this awful period. I suppose it was a question of needs. However as I look back on this period, I believe that we simply had to survive all of that. The external violence, then the intrusion of a massive military machine (the British Army) at one stage into the normality of our school, the killings and maiming in our streets, our own personal security at home where we each lived. These were all factors in our emotional and practical lives as educators.

Can you understand the absolute imperative was for us to survive? Often it really was a question of life or death in our streets. When you were near a bomb, you could feel the blast before the sound hit you.

So many emotions were running within me at that time. And there was so much uncertainty. In some regards, the armed combatants had a certain control of sorts over their outcomes. After all, they were armed and vigilant and by and large pretty fearless. People shared the same emotions. Fear. Anxiety. Concern. Hopes often dashed. Needing to survive. Insecurity. Misunderstood. Frustration.

For the Catholic Nationalist Republican community, the enemy was myriad: the British army, police, UDA, UVF Red Hand Commando, UDR, UFF and yes the IRA—official and provisional—to say nothing of the INLA. There was the risk of British abandonment and there is now Brexit, another contemporary indicator of feeling abandoned by Britain in its solemn promise of Good Friday 1998.

The Protestant Unionist Loyalist community had their enemies too: the IRA, the Irish Republic, their own paramilitaries. But they were also paranoid about the risk of British abandonment. In some regards then the common fear of the non-paramilitaries was of British abandonment.

The Schools and, in those days, the Church, held all of these tensions together and provided great stability. My very good friend Fr Alec Reid had gained the trust of the republican paramilitary groups initially when they began to fall out with each other…the Official and Provisional IRAs. During these “fall outs,” it was common for score settling to take place with one atrocity after another within the nationalist groups. It was bad enough with the “war” continuing with the Brits or the Police, but this feuding was a separate dimension and it was between blood brothers and the feelings could run very high indeed. Fr Reid negotiated truces between these groups and he often succeeded; however the truces would break down but he kept repeating his short-term successes.

He was a really shy man. As a young man, he played Irish hurling (a rather violent version of hockey), but his demeanour as a priest was the very opposite. He was deeply calm and spiritual. Sometimes while saying Mass we thought he had fallen asleep. But no, it was just Fr Reid’s way of being ecstatic in God’s presence. “Is the priest okay?” people would ask, because he had stopped saying anything during Mass. “Oh no, it’s just Fr Reid.”

However, this man was trusted by the Republican element of the “conflict” in Ireland because of his previous efforts at securing truces between their own warring factions. His task would be to convince the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that they could achieve their political aims without the use of force. These secret Fr Reid talks were critical in ending violence.

We then had the amazing IRA Statement of 1994. It came out of the blue. I had left teaching and was now working at Clonard and I could see at times high profile figures coming and going with security guys talking up their sleeves into two-way radios. Governmental limos were often seen coming and going.

In a rather innocent way, Fr Reid shared with us his recipe for peaceful resolution of any conflict and he intended writing it in book form but never quite got around to it. This is what he shared: “One must have faith in the Holy Spirit, a commitment to the dignity of each human being, acceptance of dialogue as the basis of peace-making, the need to involve men and women equally, belief in the rights of a community to its culture and identity.”

I had given practical help to Fr Reid on some email communication with the Basques, and later invited to help arrange Belfast participants for the first study group from John Carroll in 2004. In the years since then, this program has grown and benefited not only the students taking part but the people in Belfast too.

I’m sure that the lessons you take home from this program is that only by truly empathizing with others and active listening can we learn to emerge from any conflict. It’s what children do throughout their school years. They learn. Why is it so many of us think that once we leave formal education learning ceases?

Those who participate in the program gain extraordinary insights into our processes in Northern Ireland, and they also in a sense contribute to our peace. My hope would be that their hearts are strengthened by their experiences and that their own country will in some small way be enriched by their observations and experiences in Ireland.

I end by coming back to this evening’s event to launch the 2019 program. I only learned very recently of the decision to present me with this amazing Inaugural Award. Can I say again that I am profoundly honoured and grateful for this? I accept it as an award for this program too. And, as you know, these programs cannot take place without so many young people taking part. So next year I am inviting you, and as many of you who can, to please come and take part and be enriched. It is worth every penny!

In Belfast and Derry, we have lined up the community leaders, the police, the politicians, the churches, the victims, the US Consul General, the former paramilitaries, the Belfast Professors at Queens University, and the administration of John Carroll University who put their faith this program.

Can I mention Dr. John Spencer who retired a few years ago? A great friend. There is also Dr. Richard Clark who has been present for almost every program since the very beginning? Dr. Dianna Taylor has been with us twice at least. And then there is Rory O’Neil who was once a student and recently led the group of students from JCU last year as a member of the John Carroll University Staff. And so many others. But there is one person whom I cannot omit. I leave my final word of thanks tonight for Dr. Philip Metres. He has been an inspiration not only as a poet, of course, but also as a man who has inspired me to continue my work and to develop it and he has encouraged me when things became difficult.

I hope that those of you who have participated in this project over the years will continue to be nourished by those experiences and memories.

And I say to the rest of you: to come drink at the well, to taste and see….

I look forward to seeing you in Belfast.

Raymond Lennon

Oct 4th, 2018

Posted on December 2, 2018