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It's time for churches to talk tough on terror gangs

By Alf McCreary

Published 24/10/2015

Deeply troubled: Dr Norman Hamilton is concerned at the report into paramilitary activity
Deeply troubled: Dr Norman Hamilton is concerned at the report into paramilitary activity

Earlier this week a senior Presbyterian cleric, the Very Rev. Dr Norman Hamilton, gave a considered response to the report of the independent review into the many paramilitary groups in our midst.

He underlined that it was no surprise that the report confirmed the continued existence of these groups, and he spoke for many ordinary people when he said that he was "deeply troubled" that "PIRA members believe that the Army Council oversees both PIRA and Sinn Fein with an overarching strategy".

He also expressed his deep concern that "17 years on from the Belfast Agreement, paramilitary groups, both republican and loyalist, remain a feature of life in Northern Ireland, and continue to recruit".

He finished by saying: "It is my hope and prayer and expectation that our elected representatives take stock and work to bring about a satisfying outcome for all our people in the midst of ongoing political instability."

Few people will quarrel with that summary, apart from the die-hards on both sides who live in the past, and also the hoodlums who profit from various crimes including drug-peddling and extortion.

Dr Hamilton also mentioned the power of prayer, which will be understood by those of faith, even if President Obama said recently that America needed more than prayers and fine words to tackle the problem of guns in his country.

Certainly, the churches here and their members pray frequently for guidance for our politicians. They also issue helpful, and somewhat bland, joint statements about the urgency for politicians to attend to the needs of the many people in our province.

Sadly, however, nearly all Churches today are wary of being accused of "preaching", and I sometimes wonder if they are too reticent about drawing attention to the moral vacuum in our society, where paramilitary crime is so rampant that we hardly notice it, unless we are directly affected.

The findings of the independent reviewer are quite shocking, even in our society, which has more than its share of shocks.

We all suspected that a great deal of skulduggery was going on, but hardly to the extent to which it was laid bare in the recent report.

We close our eyes to the offensive murals on both sides because, as individuals, we cannot do anything to remove them, on pain of injury or death.

The great danger is that we take this so much for granted that we ignore the evil that is still eating at the heart of our society.

Recently, I talked to a political scientist friend in Oregon, and he was keen to know what ordinary people in Northern Ireland were saying about the current political situation.

He was taken aback when I said that most people were not talking about politics, but about ordinary everyday life - because they are so fed up with the political circus at Stormont.

In this period of uncertainty, the churches should have much more to say about the political morality of those trying to find a solution, and also about the sheer immorality of the violent evil in our midst.

FW de Klerk, the visionary former Prime Minister of South Africa, told a Queen's University audience recently about the need for statesmen who lead public opinion, rather than follow it.

Guess how many statesmen we have here in Northern Ireland? Maybe only three, if that.

Perhaps it is time for the churches to indulge in some tub-thumping as well as trying to politely "understand" our politicians. We need to underline their moral duty to succeed.

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