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North Ireland has changed for better

The last time I crossed the border into Northern Ireland, I came face to face with an English soldier with a machine gun over his shoulder. It was July — marching season. Not a good time to visit, the soldier informed me. Sure enough, I witnessed rowdy, sometimes violent, bands of youths roaming the streets of Belfast.

Thirty-two years later, on a bus with members of Covenant Presbyterian Church, we crossed the border without a clue. Not so much as a sign. The only way you could tell you were in Northern Ireland was the road signs. They were no longer written in both English and Gaelic. Northern Ireland has come a long way. The violence has ended.

This was in shocking display as we entered the incredibly well-done Titanic Museum in Belfast, where the largest ship in history was built. Sitting within a few blocks of the most bombed hotel in Europe, our bags weren’t even inspected. There was no point. There hasn’t been a bomb in Northern Ireland in years.

Some of this progress can be attributed to people like Steve Burton, our pastor, who was making his 37th trip here. For two decades, he and many others worked to heal bitter divisions between the Protestants and the Catholics. In this war of religious denominations, the participants forgot to follow Jesus’ admonitions to turn the other cheek and love your neighbor as yourself.

Seven years ago, a breakthrough occurred. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) renounced violence. In 2007, an Irish assembly was resuscitated to assist the United Kingdom in running Northern Ireland.

Imagine the Mississippi Legislature with the Ku Klux Klan holding 60 percent of the seats and the Black Panthers holding the other 40 percent. Now imagine them having to work together to run the state. That’s a good analogy and not an exaggeration.

For instance, one ongoing sore point involves Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the Catholic minority party that is the political arm of the IRA. Adams won’t reveal the burial spots of a dozen victims of IRA retaliation in the ‘70s when he was the IRA head. He claims he doesn’t know but his opponents say that’s hogwash.

There are few physical differences between Irish Protestants and Catholics, but that hasn’t kept them from killing each other for decades. They live in different communities, attend different schools and worship in different churches. Mixed marriages are a social scandal and rip families apart.

Now things are changing. There’s been seven years of peace. The young people are not nearly so prejudiced. They don’t remember “The Troubles.” Prejudice over religion is unfortunately being replaced by no religion at all.

The Irish, Scots and English have been fighting over the fertile Irish land for 2,000 years. Migrations from across the narrow Irish sea has created a hodgepodge of very distinct cultures.

In 1922, the Republic of Ireland became an independent state with a Catholic majority. But Northern Ireland, which was majority Protestant, voted to stay with the United Kingdom. Over the years, the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland suffered discrimination and thus the rise of violence.

Don’t dare call the Protestants in Northern Ireland Irish. They consider themselves “Ulster Scots,” Ulster being one of the four historical regions of Ireland and the one that primarily composes Northern Ireland. Or you can call them British. Scotch-Irish is an American term they don’t use.

Mississippi can trace its heritage to the Ulster Scots more than any other region. The Belfast phone book reveals hundreds of surnames with which any Mississippian would be familiar. The Ulster Scots migrated to the Carolinas and from there to Mississippi. That’s why our state is primarily Protestant. The Irish Catholics migrated to cities such as New York and Chicago where there are huge Irish Catholic communities.

After two weeks in Ireland, I got a feel for the cultural differences between the Ulster Scots and the Irish Catholics. The Ulster Scots are more religious, less likely to drink and a bit more stern, hardworking and serious than the Irish. Some of these traits are clearly revealed in the Mississippi hill country character.

Robert E. Lee was once asked who made the best soldiers. He answered, “The Scotch who came to this country by way of Ireland.” Pressed to explain his answer, Lee replied: “Because they have all the dash of the Irish in taking a position and all the stubbornness of the Scotch in holding it.” Stonewall Jackson was an Ulster Scot.

Ginny and I were in Ireland on a church mission trip. When I tell people this they ask me, “What did you build?” In Jackson, where we do mission trips big, you’re supposed to go some place impoverished and build something, or at least stage a vacation Bible school.

The mission trips in the Bible are more about encouraging, supporting, communicating and sharing the gospel. In this regard, it was a great success. We hope to bring a large contingent to Jackson from the Ballygrainey Presbyterian Church in October.