A 10-person delegation from the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the largest Protestant body in Northern Ireland, is visiting church groups in this country to argue for continued union with Great Britain.
"The great majority of our [Presbyterian] people . . . favor the preservation of union as they have seen it, that is with the United Kingdom. They would say it got broken up when the South broke away" to form the independent Republic of Ireland, said the Rev. J. A. Weir, who as stated clerk of the church heads the delegation. That view is in stark contrast to traditional Irish Roman Catholic hopes for a union of Ireland, north and south, independent of Great Britain.
The Irish Presbyterians had planned their visit here long before the hunger-strike deaths of convicted Irish Republican Army terrorists Bobby Sands and Francis Hughes and the surrounding violence once again thrust Norther Ireland back onto the front pages. Even without the latest developments, however, the Protestant visitors were convinced that Americans get much of their news of the Northern Ireland conflict from the Roman Catholic perspective.
They made the trip here, Weir said, because "it's important that the [Protestant] majority be able to make their case."
The visitors made it clear that, despite their own firm views, "as a church we recognize the right of the minority to campaign -- although not with violence -- to express their hopes for a united Ireland," in the words of the Rev. David Burke, a pastor from Bangor.
In Northern Ireland, Roman Catholics are in the minority with about 33 percent of the population. Presbyterians are the largest group within the Protestant majority, with 27 percent; Anglicans are next with 22 percent, with the remainder divided among Methodists, Quakers, the Salvation Army and small independent groups such as the tiny one headed by the militant anti-Catholic, the Rev. Ian Paisley.
Although Paisley describes himself as a Presbyterian, Weir is quick to point out that he "was never a member" of the Irish Presbyterian body. Weir said Paisley heads a denomination of about 8,000 members and as such "is a divisive force religiously and politically."
The Irish Presbyterian visitors said that the conflict in Northern Ireland is more political and economic than religious. "And yet the churches get pulled in even when they try to get above the quarrel," Weir said. "There's an old joke: the man says he's an atheist; they ask him if he's a Protestant atheist or Catholic atheist."
While there is a strong commitment at the top leadership levels of the churches to work to reduce tensions, Catholic-Protestant relationships "vary at ground level, depending on the personalities of the clergy," Weir said. Even at the top, he said, "there has been a lot of talk [of interfaith cooperation], but follow-up has been very limited."
The kinds of grass-roots ecumenical gestures that are commonplace in other parts of the world are fraught with problems in Northern Ireland. "Some years ago when we opened our new hall, we invited the parish priests from up the way to the ceremonies," recalled the Rev. Dr. R. Victor A. Lynas, from the town of Larue. "They were pleased to accept, though it took a certain measure of personal courage to do so because they were criticized" by parishioiners. As for Lynas' church, "we were picketed outside by Paisley," he said.
Calling Sands' death "a human tragedy," Weir, who spoke before Hughes' death, pointed out that violent death and injury "have been all too common in Northern Ireland. . . .Most of the grief and tragedy has fallen upon ordinary people, doing their duty for the community or going about their ordinary business, and upon their families, victims of an organized campaign by the IRA. Too often these have only received passing attention in the media, to be all too soon forgotten," he said.
The visitors condemned terrorist acts on both sides. "No progress is going to be made unless the violence can be brought to an end," Weir said. He added that the church is as opposed to giving "special category treatment" -- the goal of Sands' and Hughes' hunger strikes -- to Protestant paramilitary as to IRA terrorists. "The church is concerned that giving any concessions to those convicted of terror, whether Protestant or Catholic, would be seen as giving sanction to further violence," he said.
"We hope we are not seen as propagandists," said the Rev. Dr. Donald Fraser, head of the church's department of publication and information. "Our emphasis is not simply stating our side, but how we see the situation as Christians. . . . We are not trying to line up [American] Protestants with us. We want both sides to hear both sides," Fraser added.