Address of Dr Seán Brady, Archbishop of Armagh
and Primate of All Ireland at Féile an Phobail – West Belfast Festival
St. Oliver Plunkett Talk, St. Oliver Plunkett Church, Lenadoon, Belfast
“Born Free – What Freedom in Ireland means to me”
A Chairde, A pobail Dé. Ta an athas orm beith in bhur measc agus sibh ag
ceiliuradl Féile An Phobail. Beal Feirstá
I am very pleased to be with you this evening for this 2nd Annual St. Oliver
Plunkett lecture. Here in St. Oliver Plunkett’s Church I already feel at home,
not only because St. Oliver Plunkett was one of my predecessors as Archbishop
of Armagh, but also because the Parish Priest, Fr Martin Magill, like myself,
studied at the Irish College in Rome. There St. Oliver Plunkett himself was
once a student. Fr Martin and I were in the Irish College together in the 1980’s,
he as a student and I as a member of staff. I would like to thank you Fr.
Martin, along with Fr Terence and Fr Patrick, for your warm welcome this
evening and for your very kind words of introduction.
I would also like to thank Glen Philips and the organisers of Féile an Phobail
for their kind invitation to be part of this very impressive programme of events.
The Féile in West Belfast has become a marvellous example of how to build a
stronger and more united sense of community through constructive leadership
and events, which both celebrate and challenge, who we are. In an area which
has experienced so much of the trauma of recent years, those who inspire and
develop this initiative deserve the highest praise. Helping individuals and
communities to feel more positive about their identity and about their future
is an essential part of building a more secure and peaceful society.
Thankfully, similar initiatives are developing in other parts of the community
as well. I think we are slowly beginning to learn that confident identities do
not have to be conflicting identities. Celebrating our culture, our convictions
and our identity in a way which is both secure, yet respectful of others, open
to dialogue, and accepting of criticism and change, is itself a mark of real
freedom. And this brings me to the topic which I have been asked to address this
evening: ‘Born free! My vision of freedom in Ireland today.’
Let me say first of all that when I received the invitation to the Féile I
reached for my Irish dictionary, compiled by the Reverend Patrick S Dineen in
1927. There I saw that Féile means a ‘festival’, a ‘holiday’. And several
féilta – festivals – are mentioned. La Féile Phadraig, la Féile Brighe and
a host of other festivals of saints and religious events. When I investigated
a little further I discovered that what united all these Féile’s was the
celebration of a person or an event which represented the highest ideals and
deepest convictions of the people. What also characterised the Féile was the
gathering of a community. It is very hard, as you know, to celebrate on your
own. We are, by our very nature, social people. A festival builds community.
We like to dance and to sing, to gather and to play, to worship and to march,
because we like to celebrate with others. Catholics in particular value this
sense of community, stemming as it does from our deep, sometimes unconscious
Eucharistic culture. The Mass, the Eucharist, creates community. As the Fathers
of the early Church used to say, the Eucharist creates the Church.
And this brings me to the first part of my vision of freedom in Ireland today.
The Ireland I would like to see is one in which we all have the freedom to
celebrate the best of who we are. An Ireland where we take responsibility
for the freedom of others as well as our own. As Archbishop Oscar Romero once
said, ‘The surest way to protect our own freedom, is to fight for the freedom
of others, especially of those who oppose us most.’
This is what Christianity calls the ‘Golden Rule’: ‘Do unto others as you would
have them do unto you.’
– Whether it is the right to march as a Republican, an Orangeman or a Hibernian,
– Whether it is right to funding for the Irish language or Ulster Scots,
– Whether it is the right to have Catholic, Integrated or Irish schools, or
– Whether it is the freedom to identify yourself as a migrant, an asylum
seeker, or a refugee,
A genuinely free and confident Ireland will only come about when we stop thinking
of our own rights and freedoms first, and take responsibility for the freedoms
and rights of others, not least the other whom we find it most difficult to
accept or to tolerate.
Such a formula for freedom was given to us by Christ himself. It has the
potential to take us beyond mere tolerance and benign apartheid into the
realms of interdependence, respectful understanding and mutual liberation.
The truth is that there is no freedom in this society without the freedom
of the other, whoever that other may be. I think that what we are only now
beginning to realise is that, as a historically divided community, we do
not hold our freedom in our own hands, we hold that freedom in each other’s
Peace, in that sense, is not merely the absence of war. It cannot be reduced
simply and solely to the maintenance of a careful balance of power between
opponents. Rather, as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic
Church points out, ‘it is founded on a correct understanding of the human
person. Genuine peace requires the establishment of an order based on justice
and love’. (494)
Peace is always threatened therefore when a person is not given all that is
due to him precisely as a human person, when his dignity or equality is not
respected or when the political system is not oriented to the common good.
The defence and promotion of human rights, therefore, is essential for the
building up of a peaceful society and the successful development of individuals,
peoples and nations.
Violence on the other hand, is a lie. In the words of Pope John Paul II, ‘Violence
is unworthy of man. Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity,
the life and the freedom of human beings. The contemporary world therefore
needs the witness of unarmed prophets.’
In this regard, I would like to say that the statement by the IRA on Thursday
was, in my view, potentially the most powerful, significant and welcome move
towards genuine freedom in Ireland to have emerged from any paramilitary
organisation since the beginning of the troubles. By setting people free from
the fear of violence, by confining the search for freedom to purely democratic
and peaceful means, such actions open up the possibility of addressing the
deeper and more urgent dimensions of human freedom. I hope that the words of
the IRA are followed through. I hope others will respond with the same level
of constructive thinking. Then, I am convinced, the way will be quite literally
‘freed up’ for new and previously unthinkable relationships to develop between
people, parties and even religious leaders across this island and between this
island and Britain.
We are in a new place. I commend the efforts of all who have worked so hard
to get us here. Things will never be the same again. We have all learnt too
much from the pain of the past to remain unchanged. Tragically, we have probably
learnt most from our collective mistakes. But I believe that Ireland today
has never been closer to the freedom for which she has yearned for so long.
A new era of peaceful and fruitful progress between her diverse people and
with her nearest neighbours is very close at hand. I am utterly convinced
This brings me to the second part of what freedom in Ireland means to me. When
I read the book of Exodus, I am reminded that the journey from captivity in
Egypt to the promised land of modern day Israel, was a long and very often
a confusing one. The chosen people spent almost forty years quite literally
going round in circles. I think the parallels with our own peace process are
fairly obvious. The search for freedom, whether at a personal or at a community
level, is rarely straightforward.
Then we have those famous words which echo in the heart of every one who has
undertaken the struggle for liberation across the world – the words of Moses
to Pharaoh – ‘LET MY PEOPLE GO!’. All of this could lead you to believe that
the story of the Exodus is a very powerful justification for everyone who
ever opposed an oppressive regime. But that would be to miss the point. The
point is that political freedom and the creation of a just social order are
a noble and necessary aspiration, something deeply desired by God! Yet political
freedom is only one part of the story of human freedom. Not only was the promised
land a difficult place to get to. Once it was found, it required a lot of hard
work to ensure that it was always a place of milk and honey. In that sense it
was not just a place of freedom, but also a place of responsibility. This included
a sense of responsibility to the widow, the stranger, the old and the orphan.
It also involved forging new and mutually beneficial relationships with Israel’s
neighbours, including Egypt her ancient adversary.
Economically and politically Israel, under David and Solomon, was always at her
most successful and secure when she enjoyed constructive and peaceful relationships
with her nearest neighbours. It is interesting that even today, one of the closest
allies of Israel is Egypt, the country of her former captivity.
Again, the parallels with our own situation are obvious. Any dreamy notion of an
ethnically pure, totally independent, ‘British-free’ concept of Irish Nationalism
is just unrealistic, antiquated and unachievable. The relationship between Ireland
and Britain is so complex and intertwined that there is no future for either the
British or Irish traditions within the island of Ireland without the other. There
is no future other than a shared future. What we are trying to work out at
this period of history, however, is what the fairest and most favourable form of
relationship between our historic and deeply cherished identities is. In this regard
I believe there is no escaping the logic of the underlying principles of the Good
Friday Agreement. The overwhelming endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement by
the people of this island North and South was an act of self-determination. It
aims at drawing an irreversible moral line under the complexities of the past.
It established the principle of majority consent, with the assurance of continued
devolution in Northern Ireland, as the democratic and peaceful way of resolving
this historically difficult issue.
The latest IRA statement is bound to spark debate about the issue of a united
Ireland. I hope it will also allow that debate to occur in a freer and much more
constructive, perhaps less emotive atmosphere. What is still unclear, however, is
to what extent elements of the unionist and loyalist tradition are also willing
to commit to taking part in such a debate on purely peaceful and democratic terms.
Part of the moral complexity of our past, was the part played by the threat of
violence from the Unionist community in the decision to create Northern Ireland
as a separate entity.
What freedom in Ireland means to me is that that historic threat from the Unionist
tradition is also manifestly and verifiably removed from the debate about our
shared future. Hopefully, in coming months this issue will be subjected to the
same level of scrutiny, political determination and media interest as has quite
properly focused on the issue of the threat of Republican violence in the past.
In this context, what freedom in Ireland means to me is a total end to the fear-
threat relationship. That threat has existed for far too long between the British
and Irish traditions on this island. Too many lives have been sacrificed in the
pursuit of a superficial and outdated understanding of freedom. It is time to
construct a new vision of Irish Freedom, one which is the fruit of respectful
dialogue, trusting interdependence and mutual liberation from the things which
hold us back from creating a shared and better future.
Part of this liberation includes taking shared responsibility for law and order.
One of the most important consequences of the Exodus story is the vital connection
between a successful society and an effective system of law and order. Just when
the people were at their lowest ebb in the desert, when they were beginning to
quarrel among themselves and lose their sense of purpose as a community, God
introduced the law of the covenant through Moses. It is expressed in the Ten
Commandments. The purpose of the law was to protect the common good, to support
and protect the cohesion of the community. In recent years, there has been a
danger that the new language of freedom and morality, the language of human
rights, is becoming disconnected from the corresponding sense of responsibility
towards the community. More and more people are saying ‘I know my rights’ but
fewer and fewer people seem to be willing to acknowledge that they also have
a duty, a responsibility to the community in which they live. To declare that
‘I know my rights’ without any sense of duty towards the community is an expression
of selfishness rather than an expression of freedom.
This is one of the many reasons why I am so pleased to see so many representatives
of the other Churches here this evening. One of the many things which the Churches
share in common is a concern that the promotion of a culture of rights, without
any corresponding emphasis on the duty of the individual toward society, will further
emphasise the false concept of freedom. That is, freedom seen as a licence to do
what I want without regard to anybody else. The Gospel affirms and the Catholic
Church in its teaching constantly defends the inherent dignity of the human person
and the importance of the personal rights and freedoms which flow it. The document
Joy and Hopeof the Second Vatican Council points out that our contemporaries
greatly value freedom, and rightly so. But it goes on to say, ‘Man’s dignity
requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a
personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external
constraint.’ (#17) Furthermore, ‘the social nature of man shows that there is an
interdependence between the personal development of the individual and the improvement
of society as a whole… Life in society is not something accessory to man: through
his dealings with others, through mutual service, and through fraternal dialogue,
man develops his talents and becomes able to rise to his destiny.’ (#25) As such,
the document goes on to say, ‘Every group must take into account the needs and
legitimate aspirations of every other group, and still more of the human family
as a whole.’ (#26)
During these days the images of the terrible famine in Niger are etched firmly in
our minds. It is difficult not to feel that all our talk of politics and peace
processes is somewhat of a luxury in comparison to the appalling deprivation
which is being suffered by so many people in the developing world. It is a stark
reminder that not all struggles for freedom are equally important or equally
Poverty, lack of water, medicine, education and economic access, wherever they are
to be found, these are real forms of oppression. They happen as a direct result
of our choices here and in the other richest countries in the world. Yet why do
we not feel the same passion, invest the same determination, focus the same
resources into responding to death of a child every three seconds through hunger
as we do about sorting out our long standing and somewhat self-sustained
difficulties? Why do we feel so passionate about equality in our own society
and yet tolerate with such cavalier detachment, the gaping global inequalities
of which we are a part?
What freedom in Ireland means to me is to be part of a society which has a deep
sense of responsibility for the poor and deprived of the world. An Ireland which
not only keeps its promises to meet its Millennium Goals for development aid but
which is free enough from its own preoccupations to heed the needs and the cry
of the poor and place them firmly before the gaze of the world. It is about
living in a country which aspires to economic and social inclusion for all its
citizens and which values equal access to the very best in education, a key
avenue to personal and political emancipation.
Another aspect of freedom which is important in my vision of Ireland is respect
for the right to religious freedom. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the
Catholic Church points out that ‘the effective recognition of the right to freedom
of conscience and religious freedom is one of the highest goods and one of the
most serious duties of every person that truly wishes to ensure the good of the
individual and society.’
I sometimes worry that, in the context of the parading issue, Catholics are not
always sufficiently aware of the serious nature of this principle in terms of
their duty to respect the religious character of such parades. While parading
in public spaces does not form a major part of Catholic religious practice,
except for Corpus Christi processions, the duty to respect the conscience of
my neighbour, especially in religious matters, is a formal tenet of Catholic
teaching. It is up to others to determine what they regard as worship, to the
extent that such parades are specifically religious events, the claim of religious
freedom suggests that they should be treated with great respect.
On the other hand, the right to religious freedom is not of itself an unlimited
right. As the Compendium explains, ‘The just limits of the exercise of religious
freedom must be determined in each social situation with political prudence,
according to the requirements of the common good.’ (422) In other words, the
limits of my own rights are the rights of others. When there is a conflict of
rights, recent experience in Derry affirms that dialogue in an atmosphere of
generosity and mutual respect is the most effective way of reaching an accommodation.
I am always struck by the fact that in the Gospels Jesus is always willing to
talk to those he wishes to change, irrespective of their status or their state
What freedom in Ireland means to me, therefore, is a society in which the rights
of religion, including the right to a religious procession in a public place,
are treated with deep respect and where those who wish to demonstrate their
faith in such a way, do so with due respect and courtesy for their neighbour.
In imitation of Jesus, I would suggest that such respect includes a willingness
to dialogue with those whom we wish to change and whose interests may be affected
by our acts.
As I hope the other ministers of religion present will agree, religion can also
have a vital role in responding to one terrible form oppression which is claiming
the lives of more and more of our young people in particular. I refer to the
oppression of lack of meaning and despair. What freedom in Ireland means to me
is living in a society which is not embarrassed or afraid of its religious and
spiritual heritage. That heritage has provided its ancestors with meaning and
strength of character for centuries and millennia. Genuine freedom means living
in a country in which people are not held captive to an enslaving craving for
wealth, success or pleasure without meaning. It means belonging to a society
which acknowledges that we are not only social beings, but that we are spiritual
beings. It means seeing that without some access to meaning and values beyond
ourselves, we are vulnerable to new and enfeebling forms of slavery. Just talk
to those who are addicted to alcohol, drugs, sex or car crime as a means of
escaping from the dreariness of life or despair. They have become slaves of the
very thing which they believed would set them free. What freedom in Ireland means
to me is setting aside sufficient resources and providing sufficient personal
support to assist those who are tempted to despair or held captive by addiction.
I also believe that the price being paid for the absence of support for policing
in certain areas at the moment is too high. Every free society requires an effective
system of law and order. Such systems are human and therefore, like all things human,
are less than perfect. But as the Patten Report acknowledged, they can be changed.
They can be changed from within, especially when sufficient numbers participate
to make that police service representative of the community.
There are growing fears that the constant criticism and demonisation of the police
service is contributing to a more general breakdown in society and to a lack of
respect for law and order, particularly among the young. I have great confidence
in the ability of young nationalists and young unionists, along with others, to
play their part in constructing and maintaining a police service which all sections
of the community can support. I have no hesitation in calling on young Catholics
to join their Protestant counterparts and others in following the noble vocation
of policing and serving the whole community with courage and pride as members of
the PSNI. What freedom in Ireland means to me is that those same young people
would be respected and accepted by others in their community for the choice they
have made, whether they are from West Belfast, Portadown, the Shankill, East
Tyrone or South Armagh. What freedom in Ireland also means to me is that those
young people, once they have entered the police service, would feel free, if they
are unhappy about any aspect of what they find there, that they will to seek to
Finally, what freedom in Ireland means to me, is living in a society which cultivates
the values of genuine freedom as well as the attitudes which underpin it and the
laws which protect that freedom.
And this brings me back to where I started, to St. Oliver Plunkett. If St. Oliver
Plunkett’s life testifies to anything, is testifies to the truth that all authentic
freedom begins within. If we are not free within ourselves, then we are not free
After he was condemned a tremendous peace and serenity came to Oliver as he prepared
for death. Let me quote from a letter he wrote at the time:
‘The sentence of death was passed against me on the 15th but it has not
terrified nor caused me to lose even a quarter of an hour of sleep. I
am as innocent of all treason as the child born yesterday. I have
considered that Christ, by his fears and sufferings, merits for me to
be without fear. I do forgive all who had a hand, directly or indirectly,
in my death and in my innocent blood. My accusers swore that I had 7,000
men in arms to promote the Catholic cause and that I had the harbour of
Carlingford ready to bring in the French. Such romances as these would
not be believed by any jury in Ireland. I salute all my friends over
there as if I had named them and I recommend myself to their prayers.
None of them are to be grieved for my death, being as innocent of what
was laid to my charge, as the child unborn’.
And so, I ask you to consider the example of Oliver Plunkett. He wasn’t free from
external coercion because he was arrested. He was brought to Tyburn, where he was
brought to the scaffold and put to death. But look at the marvellous freedom he had
– the inner freedom – the freedom within – totally free of fear. He didn’t even
lose a quarter of an hour’s sleep – not even the night before his execution. He
wasn’t afraid to face his accusers or his God. He was free from self-pity. He
was not moaning and groaning.
This is the kind of freedom I believe in. Freedom from the captivity of fear, of
greed, of anger or of revenge. Freedom to be able to forgive, freedom to acknowledge
my part in the wrongs of the past, freedom to deal constructively with the past
and to bring it healing, especially to those who have been hurt by it. Freedom
to move from the feeling of being a victim to that of survivor, to that of victor
– victor over past adversity. For that victory to take place, two things are
needed – the healing of past memories and the forgiveness of past wrongs.
Oliver Plunkett was free from bitterness towards those who gave false witness –
people from his own flock, who had given false testimony against him. The evidence
needed from Ireland to corroborate the allegations against Oliver Plunkett, was
supplied by some of the suspended and renegade priests whom Oliver had disciplined
over the previous decade. Later some other people were enlisted, including some
lay people, who were promised freedom from jail along with money if they would
testify against him. Oliver was well aware of this but said that he was completely
free from any bitterness towards them. He forgave them totally from the heart.
And this is where we come ultimately to the example of Jesus. Others focused on
external observance of the laws of religion and social custom. Jesus, in his great
Sermon on the Mount, focused on the attitudes and the values from which all our
actions flow – the beatitudes. Happy are the gentle, the pure in heart, those who
hunger and thirst for what is right, those who mourn. He wrote the law of freedom
not on tablets of stone, but on our hearts. That is the freedom I celebrate at
this West Belfast Feile – Freedom of the heart. WB Yeats once said that ‘too
long a sacrifice, makes a stone of the heart’. Maybe that is what we have come
to realise. Thirty five years is a very long time. What freedom in Ireland means
to me, therefore, is removing the stones from our hearts and allowing ourselves
to be touched by the pain and sorrow of those who died, by the love and courage
of those who suffered and touched by the heartbreak of those who are left behind.
The greatest freedom of all is the freedom of Jesus on the cross to forgive and
to love. What freedom in Ireland means to me is that nobody is free, until
everybody is free. The free and selfless heart of Jesus speaks to all, especially
the least and says, you are not free, until he or she too is free. My prayer is
that, in imitation of St. Oliver Plunkett, we may come to know that freedom of
the heart by which Jesus has set us free and be willing and able to forgive
those who have trespassed against us.
A pobal Dé – Guimid orthu siud uile a bhuil cúram poiblí orthu. Go saothrai
siad ar son an Chirt agus na Siochána Fírinní.
+ Seán Brady
Archbishop of Armagh
Martin Long Director of Communications (086 172 7678)
Brenda Drumm Communications Officer (087 233 7797)