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Clare Martin writes about how the fire of conflict spreads among not just foes, but friends. She reflects on the metaphor of the fire within, and how the flame of enthusiasm can light up our hope for the future or give fuel for wildfire and chaos. What practises do we need to protect our inner flames and offer them to the work of peace?

One day in April 2012, Majella O’Donnell persuaded her son to attend an appointment to be shot in both legs by a paramilitary gunman. A masked man turned up at her door. He said her son had to report for a punishment shooting right away. They would shoot him through the flesh of his legs but not through the bone. If he didn’t go willingly, the RAAD would find him and attack him later, more viciously this time, and ‘leave him in a wheelchair for life.’  Majella had a split second to decide but really, what choice did she have? ‘It might have been brutal,’ she said, ‘but he is not dead. He is alive.’

This tragic story points to a reality about the Northern Ireland conflict that is rarely discussed.  People were more likely to be terrorised by those on their own side than by their opponents. If you were a Republican, you were far more likely to be attacked by fellow Republicans than by Loyalists. And the same went for the Loyalists, who were more likely to be killed by one of their own than by the enemy. Majella O’Donnell was a Catholic living in a Catholic area. Her son was a Catholic, and so was the masked man who was a part of the (Catholic) RAAD – the Republican Action Against Drugs, which later merged with the Real Irish Republican Army. This wasn’t a politically motivated attack, it was a part of the punitive system of paramilitary policing that took hold in communities across Belfast, whose legacy reverberates to this day.

Such violence was so widespread, the scale of it is hard to fathom. In his book Who was Responsible for the Troubles, Liam Kennedy writes ‘To appreciate the intensity of these attacks within a small population, it may be more meaningful for some readers to see the deaths and injuries projected onto a British or American scale. Relative to the population size of Britain, for instance, we are speaking, in round figures, of 130,000 deaths and one and a half million injuries. This number of deaths is three times that experienced by Britons during the Blitz of the Second World War.’

Street in chaos during The Troubles

How could this happen? How could it happen, not in some far-off country, at some point in history, but right here in Britain and in recent living memory? And – the question that has haunted me the most since I read Kennedy’s book – why was it that people committed these atrocities primarily against their own political allies? And not just their allies, but their neighbours, friends and relatives?

Kennedy points to the decivilising processes that can quickly take hold when societies reach a tipping point in their ethno-religious conflicts. Where simmering conflicts ratchet up into outbreaks of violence, violence itself becomes normalised. Thus begins a vicious cycle. Over the four decades of the Troubles, several generations of children were raised in communities where torture, maiming and executions were commonplace. ‘The high degree of ethno- religious segregation in Northern Ireland facilitated these processes, he writes. ‘According to the 2011 census almost four out of every ten local government wards were ‘single identity’ wards (that is more than 80 per cent of the residents belonged to one of the two main ethnic groups). Only one in twenty of the 582 wards was fully mixed.’ In a traumatised and conflict-ridden society, deeply divided along tribal lines, civilisational norms broke down. Conflict no longer moved in a straight line, between foe and foe. Instead, it moved like a contagion, engulfing everything in its path. 

Sometimes I think we all hold a certain quantum of energy, the size of a match flame, that we can offer up to some collectively held purpose.

I’ve thought a lot lately about Majella’s son, shot in both legs, and about the 20,000 others like him who were victims of intra-community conflict during the Troubles. I thought about them when I learned about a new trend on TikTok, where teenagers in balaclavas hoist toy rifles and sing pro-IRA songs. I’ve thought about them every time the Northern Irish protocol has hit the headlines. I thought of them when I first heard the term epistemic crisis: a state of incipient conflict whereby polarised groups use bad-faith moves to force allegiance to their own point of view. I think of them whenever I see progressive spaces torn apart by cancel culture issues, and I think of them whenever I see a political leader taking one step further down the road of division, whatever the issue at hand. 

Sometimes I think we all hold a certain quantum of energy, the size of a match flame, that we can offer up to some collectively held purpose. Leaders clamour for us to hand our flames over to their causes. They hold up torches illuminating a heroic path to justice or conquest. Flame calls to flame, and the transfer of energy can feel ecstatic. Just think of the satisfaction when a lit match transfers fire to an unlit one. Flash! 

But the power of this union of personal energy into the collective cuts both ways. It can show a vision of a future and energise a group with the will to travel there together. And it can burn itself into a bonfire that engulfs friend and foe alike. How do you know which way it’s going to go? What leader can promise to care for your flame, once you’ve handed it over? How do you know you can trust them and everyone else in their movement? Are even well-meaning people liable to underestimate the power of what they’re handling? 

At St Ethelburga’s there’s a niche in the side aisle just large enough to house a candle. We often put candles there as a prayer for those in need. Twenty four years ago there was another flame inside this building. The IRA bomb that was planted in a lorry across the street killed one man, injured 40 more and erupted the church into a fireball.

“Whenever I pass the light in the niche I think of that other fire.”

Whenever I pass the light in the niche I think of that other fire. The one that reduced this site to ashes. A difference of degrees but not of essence. It’s an awesome thought, the kinetic force contained within that tiny orange flicker. And it reminds me what I can do with my own personal inner flame. When I’m drawn to join my energy to some bigger cause, when I get fired up with outrage or sorrow, I try to remember to hold that enthusiasm safe within sacred walls. To watch over it, pray over it, and let it be a witness to others’ suffering and need. It sounds poetic. Usually it’s a half an hour of meditation plagued with angry thoughts. Still, it makes a difference. And it speaks to what St Ethelburga’s work is all about. We gather people who are in conflict with each other to hold that flame of discord within sacred walls.  

These conversations don’t end up in neat resolutions. But there’s something about holding the energy of conflict like a candle in our midst. Something to illuminate what needs to be healed. To remind us where violence and the potential for violence may still endure. As we listen deeply to each other, we drop into a deeper place within ourselves. The breeze dies down and the flame straightens. And we remember – and it means so much to remember this together! – what the light is really for. 


If you would like to partake in something that nourishes the light within us, consider signing up for Lighthouse in a storm: spiritual community for turbulent times.