The Armagh service confirmed the fragile nature of reconciliation and left the hard issues hanging

On the hill of Armagh yesterday, the theme of British-Irish reconciliation held – just – despite the absence of the two heads of state that would have significantly  confirmed it at a difficult time.  Perhaps in the end the Queen’s absence although unfortunate was in a way fortuitous. The event would have seemed unbalanced. Her presence alone might have overemphasised the  dread  theme of “ partition” over which  the President  took such exception. As Miriam Lord has written in her deft light touch sketch of the event, there was nothing to which anyone in normal mental health could have taken exception – unless – wait for it – it was the tiny Union Jack in the corner of Boris’s face mask.

The united church leaders declared their own mea culpa – “ we could have done more” – but  do  what exactly  they didn’t  say. Are the church establishments still more part of the problem than the solution? With all those kids in different school uniforms thrust into the front line of the service, where do you stand on the subject of integrated education, Eamon, John and David?   On the political side, Johnson and Coveney  surely missed a tiny trick by failing to cross the aisle  and at least arms bump  each other  to emphasise  the hopefully temporary nature of the British – Irish standoff.

A sceptic might say today’s generations were hiding behind the immature certainties of  tomorrow’s. But at least they took the implied rebuke on the chin.  On the P word  Eamon Martin declared his mild nationalism in a Derry man’s terms, cut off  from the natural hinterland  of  Donegal.  Presbyterian Moderator David Bruce declared his love for “ Northern Ireland”;  the C of I Primate  John McDowell  who has a rare fondness  among clergy for speaking meaningfully had  wry words about borders.

“We obsessed about some things, especially borders. One way or another, we’re obsessing about them again, and being distracted from really thinking about what a good society would look like.

“But I am hopeful. Hopeful in a new generation who know that the big problems we’ve landed them with, especially climate change and economic inequality, can only be tackled together… I think there are already signs that the next generation will see the things that we obsessed about as secondary and place their priorities elsewhere.”

Facing the P word head on for just a moment the Catholic Primate lamented that partition had “polarised people on this island.. It has institutionalised difference, and it remains a symbol of cultural, political and religious division between our communities.”

But fundamental division long preceded partition although the unionist record afterwards was lamentable. A deeply conservative nationalism often  preferred to sulk  rather than mount effective civil rights campaigns  that came only in the 1960s, preferring  to support the state within the state  that was then the  Roman Catholic Church. What was the real alternative by 1921? Armed conflict made rival positions irreconcilable for decades, a lesson also for our time we are still absorbing   I struggle to find  the viable alternative to it in for example Charles Townsend’s most recent splendid work The Partition.

Today we have a real chance to rise above partition  through a balance of relationships, east and west, north and south which fully express a shared reality, combined with the end of institutional discrimination.   Rather than debate the history here I would simply point out the choices implied by the service but left unstated: whether to press for an end to partition; or by pressing it to damage and perhaps destroy the obviously still unfocused “reflections and hope” for the future which leave the subject hanging. This is what Sinn Fein objects to most and to which considered replies will one day have to be delivered. But first we need the politicians’ ’mea culpa” which were absent yesterday in Armagh.  Will we ever get them?  Without them do any of them deserve our support?

Belfast Telegraph photo