Several years ago, Debbie and I had the golden opportunity to visit the emerald isle – lovingly known as Ireland.
We traveled with a group from Wilmington College. Many of our travel mates were students and college staff, but several were members of the community who just wanted to join in the adventure.
Most of our time was spent in the Republic of Ireland — it is the independent nation that occupies most of the island. Their capital is Dublin. It is usually referred to simply as Ireland.
Northern Ireland, on the northernmost part of the island, is part of the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland has maintained an alliance with England and the Church of England. They were bitterly opposed to the Catholic Church. These two groups fought for years.
Known as The Troubles or the Northern Ireland Conflict, hundreds of people died between 1968 and 1998, when open conflict ended.
Although the Irish and Northern Irish sound alike and look alike, they are distinctly different in many ways. Some will argue that The Troubles were not about religion, but religion certainly played a big part in The Troubles. Nearly 100 years ago, when Sir James Craig became the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, in his speech he clearly stated, “All I boast is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State.”
Those Irish who favored unification with the United Kingdom instead of independence were known as Unionist. They were almost all Protestants who worshiped in the Anglican Church, which is an offshoot of the Church of England.
Irish Catholics wanted nothing to do with the Church of England. They were proudly Roman Catholics who took their direction from the Pope – not the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The separation between the Irish Protestants and the Catholics was distinct and often violent. During the decades when The Troubles dominated Ireland and Northern Ireland, over 3,500 people died.
During our trip to Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, we visited the Queen’s University. It was a very impressive institution, but I was getting tired and returned to our bus before the rest of our group.
Our driver was a fine young man from the city of Limerick in the Republic of Ireland. I was glad to be able to sit and chat for a while, so I took the seat right behind him.
After a little benign chit-chat, I told him that I had a question that only a real Irishman could answer. He looked intrigued.
I told him how much Debbie and I loved Ireland and the people of Ireland, but that we were saddened by the stark difference in the “attitude” we felt between the people in Dublin and the people in Belfast.
He looked thoughtful – not angry or upset – just thoughtful.
After he considered my comment, he looked me in the eye and said, “I live in Limerick. We have several neighbors, but I couldn’t tell you where they go to church. In our neighborhood, it just doesn’t matter. But here, in Northern Ireland, for some reason … it matters.”
For some reason, it matters. That simple answer spoke volumes.
Here in the United States, most of us have a shared experience – a shared pride and love of this great country. We honor our flag, our soldiers, our police – those who keep order in our communities.
We acknowledge that there is often much that makes us different … vastly different: race, religion, ethnicity, heritage, politics, basic beliefs that were passed on to us by parents and friends. At times, I think we’re more different than we are similar, but most of us have also been taught tolerance.
We can disagree about many things. We do disagree about many things, but we are usually able to maintain a civil relationship with those folks who don’t agree with us.
Rarely, does a lack of tolerance bring out violence. It happens, but it is generally rare. Let’s keep it that way. Let’s disagree and debate but let us not resort to violence to solve our differences.
What we disagree about does matter, but, at the end of the day, let us focus on our love of this country. That will keep us united. That’s what really matters.
As all Christians are one in Christ, so let us all be one as Americans.
In the New Testament book of Galatians, we are taught, “…You are all children of God through faith. …There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Let us teach the world a lesson. Let us disagree in peace. Let us focus on what truly matters.
We are Americans.
Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.