Norman Tebbit, the former Tory cabinet minister who was injured in the Brighton bombing while his wife was left permanently paralysed, has clashed with the Anglican Bishop of Leeds after the latter linked the IRA with Christianity. “I would most certainly deny a link,” he wrote in an email to the Rt Rev Nick Baines. “Indeed, I wonder what link you see between those responsible for hundreds upon hundreds of murders (among them five of my personal friends… as well as the crippling of my wife) and Christianity?”
The bishop had written in an exchange of emails with a third party that “nobody in their right mind would deny a link between IS and Islam or between Christianity and the IRA/UDF or between Marxism and the Red Brigades”.
Ah, but hang on, my Lord Bishop, Muslim terrorists shout “Allahu Akbar” when committing acts of carnage. The Red Brigades would raise a clenched fist – a communist salute – but what IRA man ever shouted “In the name of Christ” when he blew up innocent souls? Where was his equivalent vision of 72 virgins in paradise?
There is no link between Christianity and the IRA. It is, as I wrote many years ago in a Catholic newspaper, quite impossible to be a Christian and a terrorist. The link is between a sectarian war and the IRA. It is true that some priests offered succour to the perpetrators of violence. However, there is, as it were, no link between the medical profession and serial murder just because Shipman killed off hundreds of old folk.
Christianity teaches turning the other cheek, peaceful ways and loving thine enemy. The IRA was noted for none of that. It blew up women, children, old folk and animals indiscriminately and without conscience. It maimed and it terrified. It killed shoppers as readily as it tried to kill cabinet ministers. It was an organisation proscribed by the very state it purported to serve and condemned by Pope John Paul II.
Its war was not a holy war but a territorial one. The UDF fought back in defence of its own country rather than of Protestantism. As my priest, Fr Michael Seed, put it to me on one occasion, the conflict was a war between “Catholic atheists and Protestant atheists”. The religious authorities on both sides abjured violence.
Yet there is a grain of uncomfortable truth in what the bishop says. In Northern Ireland Catholic children were intimidated and even attacked on their way to school when they walked there via a Protestant area. The Orange marchers carried banners denouncing the pope and his adherents. Violence between Catholics and Protestants was a regular occurrence and schools were segregated accordingly. Inevitably, therefore, people think of the conflict as a reflection of divided Christianity and I doubt if Norman Tebbit would gainsay that much. What, however, can never be claimed is that any IRA bomber believed he was acting in the name of Christ as the Muslims of ISIS believe they are carrying out the will of Allah.
It is a common saying that religion causes wars, but it does not. It is the claim of human beings that their actions are legitimised by religion that causes wars. However, it is also true that the Church could have been a bit more energetic in its condemnation of the IRA. Telling people that if they deliberately killed innocent children without repentance and amendment of life they would be excommunicated and in danger of hellfire would have been decidedly helpful, but it never happened.
It would have been unlikely to have deterred the crazed fanatics from their killing sprees, but it might have left the rest of us in no doubt that the IRA was not an unofficial instrument of the Catholic Church, the public might have disentangled terrorism from religion and the Bishop of Leeds might not have misled himself so badly.
Northern Ireland is now more or less at peace. Sinn Féin has dropped its demand for a united Ireland and more children go to school with those of the other denominations than ever before. The peace of Christ appears to have prevailed over what was never His war and which was never carried out in His name. Sectarianism is a long way from dead but it no longer rules the roost.
I went to Northern Ireland when I was making a documentary about the Reformation. By then the Orange march had turned into a gigantic fancy-dress parade and the atmosphere was of a people en fête. Yet I was brought down to earth by Ian Paisley, with whom I had frequently joined forces in the House of Commons over issues such as abortion.
He seemed to have mellowed until I went to see him in his office at Stormont in the course of my visit and made the grievous error of asking what he now thought of the pope. His reply was immediate and unambiguous: “The Antichrist and the son of perdition.”
No wonder the bishop is a bit confused.
Ann Widdecombe is a novelist, broadcaster and former prisons minister
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