By Jack Holland
I have it on good authority that David Trimble’s visit last week to Rome, where he met the pope, was a last-ditch attempt to save the Good Friday peace agreement. Despite being a Unionist leader and Orangeman, Trimble decided on a risk-all, ultimate confidence-building measure. This was the deal. Trimble would invite the pope to Belfast to open the new parliament at Stormont. In return, Sinn Fein would agree to "use all its influence" to persuade the IRA to "put beyond use" six ounces of fertilizer as verified by the International Commission on Decommissioning by May 2000, or an agreed date anytime after that (but before the return of Halley’s Comet in 2061). How could Trimble refuse? Experts agree that this was the way to break the decommissioning deadlock.
We are confident the pope will agree. The last time he went to Ireland (in 1979) he never got across the border to sample the joys of Ulster — the Ulster fry, the Giant’s Causeway, the City Hall, the nail-bomb, the ancient knee-capping rituals, the UCBT (i.e. undercar boobytrap device), the parade through your neighbor’s backyard, and all the other wonderful attractions.
Of course, the Rev. Ian Paisley will be angry. But he has to tread very carefully when attacking a fellow Protestant for meeting the pope. As Trimble has already hinted darkly, he will not be the first Orangeman to meet the pope. He did not say who the other Orangeman was who enjoyed that privilege. That is because he does not want to completely undermine the entire edifice of Orange anti-popery. It is a very dark secret indeed, almost as unthinkable, as if, say for comparison’s sake, the Vatican revealed that the pope is not a Polish Catholic at all but a Free Presbyterian from Ballymena. The truth — as is well-known to Catholics — is that the first Orangeman to have dealings with the pope was King Billy himself, the man to whom the whole Order is dedicated. He got the pope’s blessing, like Henry II before him, to invade Ireland. When King Billy defeated King James in 1690, the pope had the bells of St. Peter’s peal in celebration.
The issue had nothing to do with the rights or wrongs of invading Ireland. Though it was a Catholic country, that was of no concern to the pope. He was more interested in the relationship between King James and France, which the pope viewed as a danger to his own hegemony. King Billy was a welcome ally. What he did to the Irish was of no concern to Rome. It was all about power politics.
Try explaining that to the average Ulster Prod.
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I had a friend once who did. He was a Protestant who went to Trinity College, Dublin. Afterward, he taught history at a state (i.e. Protestant) school in Belfast. He decided (rather naively) to widen the horizons of his class, which was made up of working-class Protestants, and tell them the true story of King Billy and the pope. He had said no more than a few words of introduction to his lesson about the pope being a pal of King Billy’s when the students began banging the lids of their desks. There was a crescendo of noise as their anger grew. The poor man had to be rescued by the headmaster. That’ll teach him to challenge the prevailing assumptions. Anyone who has challenged other dogmas of Irish history can report similar stories. It is a bit like Galileo trying to get the Inquisition to look through his telescope at the planet Jupiter. It was a waste of time — the Inquisition knew that the Earth was at the center of the solar system, so what was the point of looking through the telescope?
The trouble is that many people now as then don’t want information, and are not really interested in the facts or, at least, all the facts. They simply want to have their prejudices confirmed. Whether it’s about King Billy, the pope, the structure of the solar system or the RUC, you must not tell them anything which conflicts with how they would like to see things, in conformity with whatever religious, political or scientific view of the world they hold dear.
For this reason, however many heavy hints Trimble may make to his Orange brethren about their Order and the pope, it is doubtful if he would ever dare to explain to them the truth. He is already in enough trouble as it is. Many Orangeman around Portadown, where his own lodge is located, are furious that he went to Rome. They suggest that he is more welcome there than he is in North Armagh. Indeed, one stated that he should stay in Rome. If Trimble had any sense, he would take their advice. Rome is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. However, one can never underestimate the call of Garvaghy Road.
Trimble is not the only prominent Ulster Protestant to feel the Roman allure. Just last year, Johnny White spent a short time in what was once the world’s capital. White was one of the founding members of the Ulster Defense Association, and the man who is credited with thinking up its nom de guerre, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, which was used to claim responsibility for hundreds of UDA murders. White was one of the most feared loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, and served 17 years for a double murder. But in 1998 all that was behind him and he visited the Vatican. He had a gander at the Cistine Chapel, which, he told me last July, impressed him deeply. Now he looks at the murals on the Shankill Road with a different eye.
To show how the spirit of Good Friday is wafting up the Shankill, why doesn’t someone commission a mural to embody the new relationship between Catholic and Protestant, republican and loyalist? It might even follow the motif of the Cistine Chapel. I can see it now. Gerry Adams floating on one cloud and David Trimble floating nearby on another, stretching their hands across the great gulf that had divided them for so long. Their fingertips would touch, and dangling from Gerry’s would be an ounce of fertilizer (ready for decommissioning). And from David’s — the keys to two seats on the new executive and a couple of cross-border bodies. While overhead in a nimbus, twin heads of the pope and King Billy gaze down benignly on the new arrangements.
Now, who could object to that?