"We'll fight the good fight in Crossmaglen"

"We'll fight the good fight in Crossmaglen"

We'll fight the good fight

Printed courtesy of The News Letter, 15 June 2010

Ian and Pauline Bothwell beside the iconic statue in Crossmaglen Square.

Over the past 30 years they have challenged the status quo in an area synonymous with IRA terrorism in innovative ways. They have imitated the iconic IRA signs on lamp posts by putting up their own JCA (Jesus Christ's Army) versions around Crossmaglen.

During one IRA ceasefire they put a signed poster on the statue in Crossmaglen square asking the IRA to decommission; they graciously challenge people supporting violence to think through their attitudes and actions.

And Ian and Pauline Bothwell boldly state that having worked for peace in the area through the darkest days of the Troubles, they will continue use their Christian faith to "overcome the threat of dissident republicanism with the towel and the basin". Ian said: "Jesus came as a servant so we respond in service to the community and wash the feet of society. We are there for the prisoner and to diffuse the felt anger in the republican community before there is a need to defuse devices."

He has not been surprised to see the dissident threat arising. "I have seen it coming for some time. There is a resentment to the shiny suits at Stormont, they see people on salaries in senior positions. There have been jobs for some in the peace industry but not a role for everyone. So some have gone back to what they are best at. "Republicans have done a such good job of creating heroes that 20-year-olds today want to model themselves on them. These young people don´t know the horror of war, the loneliness of the cell and the impact on their families. Many people are now suffering mental breakdown because of what they have done in the past," he adds. He says: "This is our towel and basin – emergency accommodation for homeless people, business training support, a counselling outreach bus, youth advice outreach, alcohol drugs and sectarianism counselling."

The base for their group – Crossfire Trust – is a 300-year-old mill owner's house in Darkley, itself the scene of a brutal gun attack on Mountain Lodge church by republicans in 1983 which claimed the lives of three church elders and injured seven other people. Pauline added: "It is hard to measure progress but you don't know what you prevent. The recent bomb in Newtownhamilton makes us redouble our efforts."

Ian first became interested in Crossmaglen 30 years ago after graduating from bible college. A television documentary about Crossmaglen grabbed his interest and he believed that the Christian gospel could transform the situation. "I decided to pray that God would send someone," he says. "The checklist was that they would have to be single, male, local and theologically trained. The penny dropped. It was me."

He drove down in his Mini and shared his message door-to-door. "Some people brought me in for tea. Dogs followed me, they recognised me as a stranger as they had been trained to follow soldiers. There was no negative reaction, just curiosity and suspicion. “I was asked ‘was I SAS?’ so at that point I decided it was time to shave off my beard and cut my long hair.”

A key part of his spiritual journey was a trip to Argentina in 2003. He had heard about British and Argentinean soldiers who had fought against each other in the Falklands war meeting together to talk and listen. After his trip he entered a 40-day fast and learned to deal with his mission field through prayer walking. “I longed for something more to handle the situation and deliver peace. “The result was greater compassion, conviction and motivation. Even the communion bread tasted like heaven during the fast.”

Ian’s dream is to see south Armagh and Crossmaglen transformed and an event where soldiers would be welcomed and people could talk about the past and listen to each other. “A handful of soldiers have already met people down here. So far it has been very private but very meaningful,” he says. “The IRA has never threatened us. I think they came to understand early on that I wasn’t a spy and that I just wanted to talk about God.”