A letter from Doug and Elaine Baker in Northern Ireland
“A symbol of the new Northern Ireland” is how Constable Ronan Kerr was described at his funeral today.
A bomb under this 25-year-old off-duty policeman’s car went off four days ago killing him, shattering his family and horrifying this society. It was a reminder of times to which Northern Ireland does not wish to return and that, although the level of violence is much lower than it was for many years, we are still far from a settled peace.
This was the first killing of a policeman in three years. No group has claimed responsibility, but everything points to ‘Dissident’ Republicans, who disagree with the ceasefire of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Belfast Agreement of 1998. This was a young Catholic officer who had been in the Police Service of Northern Ireland for less than a year. Dissidents have been trying to kill a Catholic police officer since 2002. There have been numerous bombs placed under officers’ personal cars. Most have been detected and disarmed. Two have caused severe injuries. By targeting a Catholic recruit they are attempting to send a message to the whole Catholic/Nationalist community not to join the police or accept the political settlement mainstream Republicanism has. Politicians, including those from Sinn Fein who once supported IRA attacks on police, have condemned his murder as a senseless ‘warring against peace’ and described those involved as enemies of the people of Ireland, who used the democratic process in 1998 to endorse the political agreement the Dissidents seek to bring down.
The day after his murder Ronan’s mother, Nuala, made an emotional appeal for Catholic members of the police not to be put off. She stated her belief that it is vital that recruits from Nationalist areas continue to join so that the police can reflect the diversity of this society and contribute to long-term peace and equality. She finished her remarks by urging that Ronan’s death not be in vain.
Others have also spoken out and taken symbolic steps to recognise what an important symbol of the new Northern Ireland Ronan was and to demonstrate their commitment to the future he embraced.
The president of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) pointed out that Ronan was by religion a Catholic, by politics a Nationalist, by culture and athletic involvement a Gael and by profession a member of the new Police Service of Northern Ireland — a combination of identities and involvements virtually unimaginable only a short time ago.
Gaelic sports are a strong part of Irish culture and have generally been linked to both Roman Catholic and Nationalist identities, with GAA clubs often organized on a parish basis and the Irish flag and national anthem used at Gaelic events, even in Northern Ireland. That has led to suspicion of the GAA by those who hold to a British and Protestant identity. But suspicion has been mutual, and in 1897 the GAA established a rule barring any member of the police or British armed services from membership. Likewise, from the foundation of the state of Northern Ireland in 1920, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was, for a variety of reasons, overwhelmingly (over 90 percent) Protestant/Unionist in its make-up. Hence GAA and police circles were virtually exclusive.
However, an integral part of the Belfast Agreement in 1998 was the renaming of the RUC as the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and other changes it was hoped would lead to greater Catholic recruitment and Nationalist acceptance of and cooperation with the police. Several years later the endorsement of the new policing structures by Sinn Fein (the main Republican political party) paved the way for more widespread nationalist engagement with the PSNI. In 2001 the GAA removed Rule 21, easing the way for young men and women who were already GAA members to consider a career in the police. Many, like Ronan, have. He is a symbol of the new Northern Ireland in that he straddled worlds that a few years ago would have been almost mutually exclusive.
The growing acceptance of the police service among the Nationalist community and GAA fraternity in particular was exemplified by a minute’s silence for Ronan before last weekend’s Tyrone National League match. As the small Tyrone village of Beragh ground to a halt today for the funeral, in highly symbolic scenes local schoolchildren, Ronan’s GAA teammates and scores of police officers formed a joint guard of honor. The young recruit’s coffin, which was carried from his mother’s house by, among others, the GAA president, the Tyrone manager and the Tyrone captain, was then handed to his PSNI colleagues for the final stretch to the church.
First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness entered the church together, followed by the Republic of Ireland Taoiseach Enda Kenny and then other Northern Ireland party leaders. It was the first Catholic mass ever attended by both the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leaders, while the presence of Mr. McGuinness and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams at the funeral of a police officer would have been unimaginable even in the recent past. This also marked the first time the Republic’s Taoiseach attended a police officer’s funeral in Northern Ireland.
Cardinal Sean Brady, the main celebrant, passionately urged the Dissidents to stop their violence stating, “You do not do this in our name.” Also present were the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, the moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the president of the Methodist Church.
Earlier in the day brave youths in the strongly Republican Bogside district of Derry painted over graffiti applauding the killers. At a peace rally outside Belfast City Hall timed to coincide with the funeral a trade union leader declared, “We will not permit the clock to be turned back.” Before attending the funeral First Minister Peter Robinson said, “The killers have succeeded in taking the life of a brave police officer, but in doing so they have strengthened the resolve of the rest of our society in our commitment never to go back to the division and conflict of the last generation.”
It was an unprecedented display of unity, for which we give thanks. There need to be scores of unprecedented initiatives for reconciliation in communities throughout Ireland now to ensure that Ronan’s death is truly not in vain. Pray that politicians, church leaders and ordinary citizens have the conviction and courage to follow through.
Doug and Elaine Baker
The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 196