IRISH church leaders have urged all sections of society to show tolerance and understanding as the country, both North and South, embarks in 2016 on a series of commemorations that hold different meanings and symbolisms for different traditions.
In the Republic, the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin, when a relatively small group of men and women took up arms against the British army, sowing the seeds of the subsequent war of independence, and the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922, falls in April. Events at key locations in the country will commemorate this throughout the year.
In Northern Ireland, Unionists will concentrate on the Battle of the Somme, in which both Nationalist and Unionist Irishmen fought side-by-side. The new First Minister of the DUP, Arlene Foster, has confirmed that the centenary of the Rising will be recognised there as well, concentrating on the effects it had on the establishment of Northern Ireland as an entity in 1920.
Churchmen in both jurisdictions have emphasised the need for understanding and respect by each tradition for the other, and an absence of triumphalism on either side.
In a joint New Year statement, the leaders of the four main denominations said: "May our memories and commemorations of the past, alongside our hopes and longings for the future, strengthen our resolve to live together in harmony, trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ in whom we find our hope; for he is ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever’."
The statement was signed by the Anglican and Roman Catholic Archbishops of Armagh, Dr Richard Clarke and Dr Eamon Martin respectively; the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Revd Dr Ian McNie; the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Revd Brian Anderson; and the President of the Irish Council of Churches, the Revd Dr Donald Watts.
The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, based in Dublin, said that the Churches had an important part to play in stimulating conversations of reconciliation and healing.
A spokesman said: "In their endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement, and support for local and international peace initiatives in the years since, the overwhelming majority of people throughout the island of Ireland have expressed their commitment to non-violent means of conflict resolution.
"It is time, however, to reflect on whether we have been sufficiently courageous in promoting a radical culture of peace.
"Historians, archivists, and local historical societies have been working to make heard the voices of the past, putting the experience of those who participated in these events at the heart of the discussion. An important theme emerging is the centrality of Christian faith in shaping people’s vision for society, and what it means to be a citizen."
The Churches, he said, had a part to play in nurturing healing conversations. There were many forms of remembrance. Questions in the planning of such events must be: Will this take us closer to a more caring and compassionate society? How inclusive is our approach? Who does not feel able to participate, and why?"
On New Year’s Day, hundreds attended a ceremony launching the Centenary Year at Dublin Castle, once the headquarters of British rule in Ireland, at which the President, Michael D. Higgins, raised the Tricolour and the flags bearing the symbols of the Republic proclaimed at the Rising in 1916, and the flag of the Irish Citizens’ Army.
The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Michael Jackson, said that the 1916 events of the Rising and the Somme had helped create "fault-lines" that fractured the Irish people into "Northerners and Southerners", and aided the cementing of psychological as well as political differences.
"Each ideology has become the enemy of the other, and each seeks vigorously to deny this," he said. The Irish people needed not only to resolve the differences they had inherited, but to let "new citizens to this bickering Ireland" help it to become a "rather different Ireland".