Out of sorrow, a new unity?

standard_psni_police_station_in_belfast It hardly seems nine years since Roman Catholics and Protestant foes vowed to co-exist peacably with one another in the 1998 Good Friday agreement. Last week's killing of a Catholic policeman and two British soldiers (two splinter I.R. A group's claimed responsibility for the killings) could have threatened that peace.

But what happened at the funeral for Constable Stephen Carroll was quite otherwise. Those who reported the story, including veteran John Burns for the New York Times and Henry Chu for the Los Angeles Times chose, perhaps not surprisingly, to emphasize the unity showed by Protestants and Catholics over expressions of consolation or religious comfort.

Burns, who has covered all sorts of war zones, has seen his share of bloodshed. I happen to be a fan, and I really like his lede-it shows a restrained, hopeful and realistic perspective. The reporter immediately backs up his point of view (which looks deeper into the question of future unity than do the other articles) with evidence culled from 'dozens of interviews" across Northern Ireland.

The Irish Republican Army dissidents who shocked Northern Ireland this week by killing two British soldiers and a policeman within a 48-hour period have made no secret of their ambition to ignite a new wave of sectarian bloodletting.

But as formerly sworn enemies filed into a provincial church on Friday to mourn as one, the funeral of the slain policeman provided the latest and most powerful demonstration of the ways in which the province's people and its leaders have united against a return to the violence that racked Northern Ireland for 30 years.

After listing a few reasons why the power-sharing might endure in the province, Burns has this remarkable paragraph.

As much as it was a farewell to the police officer slain on Monday night, Constable Stephen Carroll, the funeral on Friday served, just as much, as a memorial for the two British soldiers killed as they picked up pizzas outside their base in the town of Antrim on Saturday night.

There's not a lot of overtly religious language either here or in Chu's article, which focuses on the transformation the police force has undergone as it was transformed from a hated symbol of British rule to one that eventually is to be 50 percent Catholic.

British media also seemed to focus on unity rather than eulogies, as evinced by David Sharrock's piece in the (London) Times Online, as well as the reporting by Stephen Morris and Esther Addley on the Guardian website.

In fact, the most powerful and unsettling quote, mentioned in three of the accounts, was one from the grieving widow, Kate Carroll. Her stark comments brought home the centuries of bloodshed endured by the Irish, who have grieved with so many parents, and children, and widows.

Mrs Carroll described how his body was the man she knew -- apart from his smile. "He was always smiling, a big cheesy grin. The only thing missing from him is the big cheesy grin."

She said she felt dead inside. "I just hope he hasn't died in vain. We only get one chance in life and that piece of land [where he will be laid to rest] is just a piece of land and my husband is going to get just six foot by six foot of it.

"That's all any of us are going to get, and why don't they realise this, and talk to each other. Why not enjoy your life, it's short -- very, very short."

Could the writers have included some of the words of supernatural comfort undoubtedly said at Constable Carroll's funeral? Sure But as noted by Rod Dreher in his blog, this is still a very poignant story. Underlying this tragedy are the grand themes of the Judeo-Christian tradition--forgiveness, sin, sorrow and hope. Blessed indeed are the peacemakers.

Picture of Belfast police station from Wikimedia Commons

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