Did the speech made by Pope John Paul II at Drogheda during his visit to Ireland in 1979 change the course of Irish history? This is the contention of a new documentary John Paul II in Ireland: A Plea for Peace, written and directed by David Naglieri. The originality of the film’s premise lies in what it purports to be: the untold story of Pope John Paul’s contribution to the Irish peace process.

At the time of the Pope’s visit to Ireland, the then Ulster Troubles were still very much raging. The Pope’s wish to visit both the North and South of the island had, as a result, been dashed. Any trip to the Protestant dominated North would, it was feared, provoke even more civil unrest there. A compromise was conceived: there should be a large gathering organized close to the Irish Border near the town of Drogheda, thus allowing many Northern Catholics to come south to see and hear Pope John Paul, but also, crucially, in a place that was still within the ancient northern diocese of Armagh, which straddles both sides of the Irish border.

Such a venue also gave Pope John Paul an opportunity to address the Northern conflict directly because of its proximity to the border. In the end, he did so in no uncertain terms, appealing to those engaged in violence to turn from it and, instead, seek peaceful means to achieve their political goals. This message was directed to all terrorist organizations, and, in particular, to the then predominant one on the Nationalist—Catholic—side, the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Many within Ireland and abroad hailed the Pope’s words as historic. It seemed clear to many Catholics that what he said removed any justification for the ongoing Republican “armed struggle.” The reaction to the Pope’s words from the Republican movement was, however, equally clear, and wholly dismissive. For another two decades, across Northern Ireland and further afield, the murders and bombings were to continue.

John Paul II in Ireland: A Plea for Peace’s main contention is that the words of Pope John Paul did have an impact, but one that is only now being fully understood. The film maintains that the Pope’s words spoken outside Drogheda caused some priests in Belfast and elsewhere to begin a course of action aimed at trying to persuade Republicans, especially those in Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, to move from their war footing and adopt a solely political engagement with the problems of Northern Ireland. These same priests were to help establish meetings, at first held in secret, between Republicans and the then constitutional nationalist leaders. The film says that it was this process of meetings started by priests that, eventually, led to what became known as the Peace Process, culminating in an IRA ceasefire and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

From the start, the film’s narrative is a little too tidy a reading of Irish history in general, and the Ulster Troubles in particular. John Paul II in Ireland: A Plea for Peace is a broad-brush approach to a notoriously complex and disputed subject, one bound up with Ireland’s culture, politics, and economics as much as with religion. The film runs for just under one hour, far too short a time to tease out and explain something of these varied strands of Irish history, never mind introduce into that mix the film’s novel idea, namely, the pivotal role of Pope John Paul’s intervention in bringing about an end to the Troubles.

The version of Irish history in John Paul II in Ireland: A Plea for Peace is skewed to a nationalist/ Republican reading of it, especially the 1921 Partition of Ireland and its aftermath. Inevitably, in the film there are a number of omissions. The first being that the legitimacy of the new state of Northern Ireland was attacked militarily by the IRA from partition. Furthermore, every decade after partition, fresh campaigns of violence were initiated by the IRA to destabilize Northern Ireland. The IRA’s aim was a simple one: to destroy Northern Ireland and through that means, they thought, bring about a united Ireland. That end justified the use of any violence in the minds of Republicans. And so, the outbreak of yet another armed campaign in 1969 for them was simply a continuation of a struggle as yet unfinished, as well as a declaration that Northern Ireland had no legitimacy and no right to exist. The IRA campaign, still underway in 1979, was an armed insurrection against a state, not a struggle to right wrongs within an agreed jurisdiction.

On the Unionist side, these years of IRA violence had bred a “siege mentality.” Such a mindset helped fuel some of the undoubted injustices perpetrated against Ulster’s Catholics in terms of jobs and public housing. From its inception, then, the Northern State was as bitterly divided politically as it was embattled, with any periods of relative calm mere preludes to the next cycle of violence about to be unleashed.

In fact, this sense of grievance and sectarian hatred on both sides, dating back to the Elizabethan Plantation of Ulster, cannot be underestimated. This remains so today, with Protestants and Catholics still, to a large extent, living separately. Ulster has a form of social and cultural apartheid that is understood and agreed, some would even say welcomed, by the vast majority living there whatever their political or religious affiliation.

So although, having presented its case that peace was brought about, John Paul II in Ireland: A Plea for Peace goes on to state that today’s Northern Ireland is a far from perfect society. This sounds a little too neat an ending, especially for the families of the still 3,000 unsolved murders dating from the Troubles some twenty years after Ulster’s peace was officially declared. Needless to say, a new political order has been established in Northern Ireland, but perhaps it is not one so much concerned with resolving an age old conflict as much as a division of the spoils, not so much one aimed at peace as at a prolongation of a cessation of violence.

A different reading of recent history is this. Barely a year or so after the pope’s visit, the Northern Troubles were fanned into new life by the Hunger Strikes of Republican prisoners in Northern Ireland. Ten men were to starve themselves to death during 1981. As in the 1916 Easter Rising, this “blood sacrifice” gave the IRA new recruits and much needed propaganda. It did something else though. At the height of the Hunger Strike, one of its leaders, Bobby Sands, won a Westminster Parliamentary by-election. The worldwide publicity generated was immense, as was the acute diplomatic embarrassment to the British Government. Furthermore, it showed Sinn Fein that it could win elections.

Thereafter, Sinn Fein pushed the “Armalite and the ballot box” strategy. The Republican armed struggle would continue, but a more active political front was opened. As recent election results demonstrate, within two decades Sinn Fein was to eclipse all its political rivals in the North and become, and still remains, electorally dominant within nationalism there. In recent years, the party’s success in the Republic’s elections has been equally dramatic.

Simply put, it could be argued that the Peace Process arrived because Republicanism no longer needed violence to achieve its aims. Further violence on Ulster’s streets only served to alienate Sinn Fein’s potential voters, North and South of the Irish border, as violence became counterproductive to the overall Republican strategy. Now the goal of a United Ireland could be advanced much more effectively through political office than it ever could be through an unwinnable guerrilla war.

Watching John Paul II in Ireland: A Plea for Peace one is reminded of the words of Winston Churchill, who, in 1922, on surveying the new Europe emerging after the Great War looked to Ireland then embroiled in armed revolt in the North and a vicious civil war in the South. On this, he commented: “The whole map of Europe has been changed… but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.”

Signifying an interminable conflict, those “steeples” remain to this day for the inevitable sad cycle of Ulster history continues to turn.

Republished with gracious permission of The St. Austin Review (November/December 2018).

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The featured image is a photograph of Pope John Paul II taken in 1985. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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