Arlow, William James ('Bill') (1926–2006), anglican cleric and peacemaker, was born in Banbridge, Co. Down, on 23 November 2006, son of William John Arlow, a printer on the local newspaper, and his wife Mary (née Wilson). One of his parents was the child of a protestant father and a catholic mother, and in later life Arlow frequently referred to this mixed ancestry as an inspiration of his work for reconciliation. Educated at Abercorn school, Banbridge, after leaving school he worked as a draper's apprentice. In his late teens and early twenties he became an active church worker, helping to organise the first visit of the American evangelical preacher Billy Graham to Northern Ireland in 1949. Some months after his marriage to Edith Patricia Benson at Osborne Park Methodist Church, Belfast, on 18 October 1952, Arlow moved to Toronto, Canada, as a worker for the Graham organisation, Youth for Christ. The Arlows subsequently worked for Youth for Christ Europe in Denmark before William became the first full-time Youth for Christ worker in Belfast. He was also a director of Trinity Film Service. The Arlows had a daughter and two sons, and Arlow frequently spoke of how his family's love sustained him in his mission.
Arlow subsequently decided to enter the Church of Ireland ministry. After studying at Coates Hall, Edinburgh, the theological college of the Scottish Episcopal Church, he was ordained deacon in 1959 and priest in 1960. As a curate in the working-class Ballymacarrett district of Belfast (1959–61), he was deeply moved by the extent of alcoholism, unemployment, and bad housing, and caused controversy among Church of Ireland members by joining a workers' protest march against unemployment. Appointed by the house of bishops to an administrative post as central adviser on Christian stewardship, he was rector of St Patrick's church, Newry, Co. Down (1966–70), and always recalled this pastoral experience where protestants rather than catholics were the minority as having informed his understanding of the need for reconciliation. He returned to east Belfast as rector of St Donard's parish (1970–74), in the Bloomfield area bordering on Ballymacarrett, where he witnessed the outbreak of the Northern Ireland troubles and the impact of paramilitary violence (once ministering to a dying youth who had just been shot in the brain). Arlow was a founder of the 'Good Neighbour' movement, which sought to prevent the expulsion of catholics from protestant areas, and he established contacts with paramilitary-linked figures such as the UDA leader Andy Tyrie and the republican Jimmy Drumm with the aim of stopping sectarian killings. (His wife Pat Arlow later recalled one evening on which the rectory witnessed two simultaneous meetings: of the Women's World Day of Prayer group and the local UDA command.) He resigned from his parish in 1974 because of a throat complaint involving the partial loss of his voice; however, he was then recruited as assistant secretary to the Irish Council of Churches (ICC). His intense participation in cross-community negotiations subsequently caused permanent damage to his voice, and one of his interlocutors nicknamed him 'Whispering Grass' (after a popular song).
An experiment in which twenty-four community activists from both sides of the sectarian/political divide were brought to a centre in Holland and obliged to thrash out their differences, led to the creation of an ecumenical centre which survived attacks from both sides. Inspired by this, Arlow decided to arrange talks between protestant church representatives and the IRA. He believed that this would make republicans more aware of community feeling, allow better understanding of the republican mindset, and encourage a wider process of engagement that might contribute to ending the conflict. After an initial meeting in north Donegal between protestant clerics and lower-ranking members of the IRA leadership, on 9 December 1974 a delegation of churchmen made their way to Feakle, Co. Clare. The next day a meeting between the clergymen and Sinn Féin leaders was joined by several members of the IRA army council, and a frank discussion took place. The churchmen, who had half-expected the IRA leaders to be 'monsters' and had even wondered if they might be kidnapped by them, were impressed by their interlocutors' sense of commitment and ability to state their case. The revelation that protestant clergymen (who emphasised that they acted as individuals, not representatives of their churches) had met the IRA caused a sensation; the hardline unionist Ian Paisley (qv) denounced 'the fickle Feakle clergy'. Arlow in particular – described by Paisley as a 'Provo parrot' (Ir. Times, 5 August 2006) – attracted considerable criticism from within the protestant community; he received hate mail and death threats and had to move house and live under guard for some time. More civil critics saw him as unworldly and naïve.
The clerics had briefed British government officials in general terms about the intended talks, and afterwards briefed the Northern Ireland Office on their experiences and a statement presented by the republicans. The Feakle talks led directly to a unilateral IRA ceasefire, called for two weeks from 22 December 1974 and later extended to 16 January 1975. This was followed by talks between British officials and representatives of Sinn Féin and the IRA, leading to a bilateral truce (10 February–22 September 1975). Arlow and the ICC had been invited to sit in on the talks between the Northern Ireland Office and the IRA but declined on the grounds that their role was to break the ice, not to participate in an institutional process. Arlow, however, continued to meet quietly with paramilitary representatives to try to smooth the process. He also engaged in personal dialogue with those – including relatives of victims of the troubles – who were shocked by his actions. Later in 1975 Arlow caused considerable excitement by stating he had reason to believe that the British government had informed the IRA that if the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention then in session failed to reach agreement on a constitutional settlement, British troops would withdraw from Northern Ireland. This was speedily denied by the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Merlyn Rees (qv), who in his memoirs described the Feakle clergymen as good men but complained that Arlow was a 'chatterbox' and that his statement had been irresponsible and could have triggered more loyalist violence. (Arlow's misperception may, however, have helped to prolong the ceasefire by encouraging republican expectations of imminent victory.)
In 1975 Arlow became secretary to the ICC, and in 1976 was appointed a canon of St Anne's cathedral, Belfast. In 1979, after announcing his retirement from his ICC post, he was given a position at the cathedral with special responsibility for reconciliation and ecumenical affairs. He developed a close friendship with the Roman catholic archbishop and primate Tomás Ó Fiaich (qv), who in 1979 invited him to witness the consistory at which Ó Fiaich was made a cardinal; the two men issued a statement presenting the occasion as symbolising their work for reconciliation. Arlow continued to participate in cross-community dialogue and the contacts he developed between Northern Ireland activists and Dutch evangelical mediators helped to bring about the secret Duisburg talks (14–15 October 1988) between unionist and SDLP politicians on how power-sharing might operate.
In 1985 Arlow became treasurer of St Anne's cathedral, and in 1986 after his health deteriorated he was assigned the position of bishop's curate in the peaceful parish of Ballyphilip and Ardquin (on the Ards peninsula), based at the Church of SS Philip and James in Portaferry. He finally retired in 1989 after a series of heart attacks, and thereafter lived quietly in Bangor, Co. Down, occasionally giving interviews. In 1980 he had published a paperback collection of sermons and radio talks, Over to you (prefaced by a profile of Arlow by the Sunday Times journalist Andrew Stephen). These are chiefly notable for their insistence that it was not enough for listeners to pride themselves on not participating in political violence, but that it was their religious duty to work actively to end it. In August 1996 Arlow publicly criticised the Church of Ireland archbishop of Armagh, Robin Eames, for failing to prevent the use of Drumcree church in Portadown as a focal point for Orange protests over the authorities' refusal to allow an Orange order parade to pass along the nationalist Garvaghy Road. (After Arlow's death Eames paid tribute to his courage in pursuit of peace.)
William Arlow died on 25 July 2006. His last years were rendered happier by the belief that at Feakle he had started the intermittent contacts between the conflicting sides which in the 1990s gave rise to the peace process that caused the near-total cessation of the Northern Ireland troubles. To a great extent he had outlived his fame, and his death did not attract widespread attention. It is noteworthy, however, that journalists (a naturally cynical breed) who came in contact with him were impressed by his integrity. A clear thread runs through Arlow's career from his youthful revivalism to his ecumenical and peacemaking endeavours: the belief that Christianity must not retreat into a complacent middle-class club but must understand, engage with, and help the excluded. He told radio listeners in 1976 that the Northern Ireland conflict caused many to think that Christianity was part of the problem; only by active peacemaking could Christians bear witness that, in the words of a placard the young Arlow had waved at a Billy Graham rally, 'Christ is the answer.'