Couldn't have said it better myself...

"Life is God's gift to us. What we do with it is our gift to him."

Maya Angelou



Thursday, April 24, 2014

Redeeming Violence?

Last weekend there were a number of celebrations of the Easter Rising that is seen as the key moment in modern Irish republicanism. Many of these celebrations had a greater "historical re-enactment" character than in previous years (which were more overt celebrations of the more recent Republican campaign of violence) akin to the recent re-enactments associated with the celebrations of the Ulster Covenant etc. This is clearly only a dry run for a full blown re-enactment in 2 years time... By that stage, the only thing missing will be the Royal Navy lying at anchor in Dublin Bay and firing a broadside in commemoration of the flattening of central Dublin by them! Doubtless the commemorations will take place over Easter weekend in 2016, as they did this and every other year, but the actual anniversary of the beginning of the rising on Easter Monday is 24th April. 98 years ago today Patrick Pearse stood on the steps of the GPO and proclaimed the creation of the Republic of Ireland, giving a poetic and religious gloss the pursuit of Irish independence. It may be impolitic of me to say this but I believe this "poet-martyr" casts a long, romantic and malevolent shadow over relations on this island. His peculiarly toxic combination of religion and republicanism is even clearer  in a piece he wrote before the preceding Christmas:

"The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. Heroism has come back to the earth... it is patriotism that stirs the peoples. Belgium defending her soil is heroic, and so is Turkey fighting with her back to Constantinople.
It is good for the world that such things should be done. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.
War is a terrible thing, and this is the most terrible of wars. But this war is not more terrible than the evils which it will end or help to end...
Many people in Ireland dread war because they do not know it. Ireland has not known the exhilaration of war for over a hundred years. Yet who will say that she has known the blessings of peace? When war comes to Ireland, she must welcome it as she would welcome the Angel of God. And she will.
It is because peace is so precious a boon that war is so sacred a duty. Ireland will not find Christ's peace until she has taken Christ's sword. What peace she has known in these latter days has been the devil's peace, peace with sin, peace with dishonour. It is a foul thing, dear only to men of foul breeds. Christ's peace is lovely in its coming, beautiful are its feet on the mountains. But it is heralded by terrific messengers; seraphim and cherubim blow trumpets of war before it. We must not flinch when we are passing through that uproar; we must not faint at the sight of blood. Winning through it, we (or those of us who survive) shall come unto great joy. We and our fathers have known the Pax Britannica. To our sons we must bequeath the Peace of the Gael."

A slightly different tenor to that of Julia Ward Howe's Mothers' Day Declaration, that I published in my Mothering Sunday post centred around Julia Ward Howe's rallying call to mothers in the wake of the American Civil War to take a stand for peace and against nationalistic militarism. Sadly that call was not widely heeded and despite the huge losses incurred by America in that war, 2 world wars and many other international skirmishes(!), America is still far too swift to see the sword (or unmanned drone) as the instrument of choice in international polity. And some of its citizens, those Patrick Pearce deemed Ireland's "exiled children in America" have supported the use of violence for political ends on this island down through the years. I've had personal "debates" with those who have supported the "armed struggle" in Washington DC, Providence RI, Grand Rapids and New York, and was disappointed, if not surprised by the recent controversy over the presence of the PSNI in the New York St. Patrick's Day parade fomented by dissident republican supporters there.
But the whole theme of politically motivated republican violence has been bubbling away in my heart and head since that fateful night three months ago now when I was listening to Patrick Magee in the Skainos Centre with some decidedly non-non-violent protest taking place outside. In that listening exercise it was interesting to hear Magee's reluctance to cast any doubt on the moral validity or even the pragmatic effectiveness of the Provisional IRA's campaign of violence and his part in it, whilst at the same time to hear him passionately arguing that the current campaign by dissident republicans is at best counterproductive with regard to the ultimate aim of a United (and peaceful?) Ireland.
The analysis of the effectiveness of violence in Irish politics points in different directions depending on who you talk to.
  • There were some in the room that night who would suggest that the IRA campaign had clearly failed since there are now former IRA volunteers sitting in an avowedly British institution as Stormont MLAs.
  • Others would argue that an effective Stormont Assembly was only possible once Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA had abandoned violence and the threat of violence with a ceasefire and subsequent decommissioning.
  • There are those in the dissident, or as they might prefer it "alternative" republican camp, who would actually agree with both of the above analyses, reinforcing their rejection of the Good Friday Agreement, the Stormont Assembly, and the pursuit of a United Ireland by purely political means. You will find no mealy-mouthed condemnation of politically motivated violence in that sector.
  • Yet among their polar opposites on the more disaffected fringes of loyalism (at times reinforced by some ill-considered statements by more mainstream Unionist representatives), there are those who look at all that Sinn Fein has achieved and continues to achieve for their community, attributing it to their use and threat of violence in the past, and the continued ambivalence towards the use of violence in the wider republican community, reinforcing the idea that violent protest pays dividends... And there are times when that is true, when unrepresentative individuals are given undue influence in public discourse on the media, in political discussions etc because they claim to be "the voice of the (rioting) people."


But whilst Pearse's mindset may have been different from Julia Ward Howe, it was not so different from the mindset of those who baptised British and German Imperialism before the first world war, and which even today sees nothing ironic in conflating the image of the Cross and the Sword in the recently dedicated Glasnevin monument to Irish citizens who died in the 2 world wars... And it was not so different from the "for God and Ulster" mindset of those who drafted the Ulster Covenant, smuggled German arms into Larne one hundred years ago this month to resist the democratic will of the British parliament, and a few months later encouraged the Ulster Volunteer Forces to take up arms for Britain against Germany... Leading Ulster Unionists to sacrifice their lives for their country on the Somme a few months after Irish Republicans had sacrificed theirs in Dublin at Easter 1916.


Faith, politics and violence is a dangerous combination, and as we lurch further into this decade of centenaries, remembering events that still shape the present, I believe that we as churches cannot be critical of people like Patrick Magee, or dissident/alternative republicans, or loyalist protesters regarding their ambivalence to violence, so long as we continue to be equally ambivalent. The concept of redemptive violence particularly beloved of Hollywood and particular strains of evangelicalism, is woven into the church's relationship with the state (whichever state that may be), whether there is an explicit state church or not, and it has been from the time of Constantine.

Can violence be redemptive? Well God is capable of anything... he turned the awful violence of the cross into the single most redemptive act in history... But Christ was the victim in that not the perpetrator of the violence (unless you have a truly warped understanding of the sovereignty of God),  the victim of religion and state forces working in an unholy alliance. As such the cross offers no justification for regarding acts of violence as redemptive in advance. The church should never be seen to bless the perpetrators of politically motivated violence, whether those perpetrators are states or resisting states. I will agree with Pearce in this, and this alone, war is a terrible thing, an evil thing, indeed I would argue that violence is evil. Is there such a thing as greater and lesser evils? Probably... But where possible we should leave God to work that out and seek to pursue an avowed path of non-violence... Praying that we never have to make the call between such greater and lesser evils.

And where we are called to participate in acts of remembrance we should beware of offering moral or religious justification for that which cannot be justified.

I would reckon I will be coming back to these issues again and again over the next few years... and perhaps other bloggers or their equivalent will be returning to them in 100 years...

(If you are interested Kevin Hargaden, a Presbyterian blogger and republican, makes a much more articulate but concise case for Christian nonviolence.)

Shalom
 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Christian Britain and other Nonsense

When my sister in law drew my attention last week to the Daily Torygraph's article about David Cameron's Christian credo and his description of Britain as a Christian country, I have to say I wasn't terribly surprised. It was off the back of a Church Times article where the PM seems to have been fishing for the support of the nice, middle of the road, Vicar of Dibley-esque wing of the Church of England against all those nasty Bishops and pink-tinged foodbank volunteers who have been giving him and his government a hard time recently. My sister-in-law was of a similar mindset to those who wrote a  letter to the Telegraph to express their belief that his description of Britain as a Christian country would prove divisive... Well, clearly it has... it has divided the country into those who write letters about such things and those who don't. I also don't want to cast doubts on David Cameron's faith, as Tony "Does he think of himself as a Christian or as Christ himself" Blair's spin doctor, Alastair "We Don't Do God" Campbell, has allegedly done (the remarks are supposed to have been made on his blog on Good Friday but have now been taken down)... I may be the only one, but I actually find David Cameron's "Magic FM in the Chilterns" description of his faith refreshingly honest... although I wish for his sake it was more than that and that his faltering faith would have a little bit more practical compassion within it... the getting your hands dirty sort of faith rather than the "God helps those who help themselves" sort...
That said, I found little in the original piece that would really be divisive... it explicitly recognises the impact of people of other and no faith, and would find echoes among statements by the more moderate leaders of non-Christian faiths, who repeatedly say that they appreciate the broad religious tolerance within British "Christian" society, a tolerance, it must be said was hard-won through periods of extreme intolerance in the wake of the reformation, English Civil War and later deposition of James II.
Actually, probably the most divisive thing in it is the misappropriation of the word "evangelical", which paradoxically may unite conservative evangelicals, liberal Christians and letter-writing humanists/atheists in opposition to him... He probably meant "evangelistic" (although Christians themselves constantly confuse the 2 terms, with "evangelical", often with a capital E, describing a theological trend, and "evangelistic" referring to a zealous sharing of good news, with a capital G and N if being done by Evangelicals). Or perhaps, looking at the article again, he simply means "enthusiastic", because a lot of it sounds like a half time team talk to a "rugger team" being beaten 42-nil by a bunch of beastly state-school boys who aren't playing the game the way it should be played! When asked about the PM's speech the Archbishop of Canterbury seems to have picked up on this encouragement to be more confident in the core message and values of Christianity.
But this far, and this far only I will agree with today's illustrious letter-writer's to the Telegraph, that only insofar as England and Scotland still have established churches (but not Wales or Northern Ireland)and there is an implied Christianity woven into the unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom, can "Britain" be defined as a Christian country... David Cameron is at least being consistent... he has been spouting this sort of nonsense since back in 2011 with the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible... And it is an idea drawn straight from 17th century England with it's attempt, like most of post reformation Europe to have a 1 nation-1 monarch-1 faith.
I actually find the use of the word Christian as a modifier to be off-putting... In reference to a Christian play, book, film or painting, how much does their content need to be shaped by Christian faith to make them definitively Christian?
With the description of a country as "Christian" you have that issue magnified by the number of citizens and then some. Historically the description of a country as Christian/Protestant/Catholic/Muslim/Sunni/Shi'ite/Hindu/Zoroastran (delete as applicable) has always had political implications... from before the time of Constantine. Actually I am reliably informed that the first supposedly "Christian" country was Armenia in the early 4th century, before Constantine had his "vision" of a conquering cross... But that part of the world has had a dodgy history of using faith as a national rallying point. The Armenians' near-neighbours, the somewhat combative Georgians became Christians but famously inscribed their coins in Arabic with the message "Sword of the Messiah" so their other Turkish Muslim neighbours would be in no doubt where they stood...
You would think that David Cameron would think twice about describing Britain, or England as a Christian nation if he were to take a good long look at his equally combative  near-neighbours here in Northern Ireland, the most explicitly "Christian" of the 4 UK nations (despite our lack of an established church - though don't tell either the Presbyterians or Church of Ireland - I think they both think they are the unofficial establishment). Christian institutions have helped to shape Northern Ireland (and the rest of the UK) but to describe the entire nation as Christian is a nonsense, if not a blasphemy. The description of Northern Ireland as Christian without any clear demonstration of that in our love for one another has brought shame on the name of Christ for decades if not longer.
Describing nations as Christian may simply be a religious rallying point for nationalism, which, as I will return to (again) in a while, is all too often a narrow, exclusive and profoundly anti-Christian ideology.
It is individuals who must decide whether or not they are Christian, not nations... Christianity is no respecter of geographic borders... The borders of the Kingdom of God are drawn on the contours of the human heart... and while those contours may at times be a bit like the Chilterns, there is no suggestion in scripture that Jesus' feet walked those green and pleasant lands, or conferred special Christian status on any part of these islands...
 
Shalom

Monday, April 21, 2014

Christ is Still Risen

(Thought for the Day on Radio Ulster, Easter Monday 21st April 2014)
 
Alleluia. Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!   Alleluia!
With those words Christian churches across the English-speaking world began or ended their services yesterday. But let me let you into a secret… There are many pastors, priests and preachers who, by the end of the last service yesterday, were secretly thinking Alleluia! It is over…
Because whilst Holy Week and Easter is THE most important week of the Christian calendar, it can end up like the spiritual equivalent of a decathlon… with services throughout the week, prayer meetings, home communions, extended vigils on Good Friday and early morning services yesterday, often followed by baptisms, communions and/or special Easter celebration services… Some of my friends think that Holy Week is the only week of the year I do a full week’s work…
But many ministers down tools on Easter Monday for a few days, and frequently take the Sunday after Easter off. That Sunday has traditionally been called “Low Sunday” and although the origin of that term is uncertain, it is often marked by low attendances at church services, so it is clearly not just the minister taking a Sunday off!
Yet for all that, I found myself, on Easter Monday, getting up at stupid o’clock to do Thought for the Day on BBC Radio Ulster (and for the second time in a year they didn't tell me that the programme started an hour later than usual, meaning that I had actually got up even earlier than I needed to!) and heading from there to do a chaplaincy round at the hospital… There is no virtue in that on my part, as I was simply deferring the start of my few days off until this afternoon…
However, the former Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, argues that this practice of taking time off immediately after Easter devalues its significance as a Christian festival… He suggests that the importance of Christ’s resurrection and the message of hope within it is more than a one-day wonder… It completely changed the disciples from a bunch of frightened fishermen and family members huddled in a locked attic room, fearful that they would go the same way as Jesus… into people who were prepared to preach about Jesus on the doorsteps of those who had killed him… It has turned the entire world upside down… Without the resurrection, Good Friday would be anything but good, Jesus’ birth in a Bethlehem byre would have been long forgotten and the entire calendar would have been dated differently… Not only that, but the many things that have happened in his name over the past 2000 years, good and not so good, might never have occurred…
It is great to join in the celebrations of Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday… but the question is, what difference does it make to your life and mine on Easter Monday, and later on, when the chocolate eggs are all eaten and the strains of Thine be the glory have faded away?
Christ is STILL risen. He is risen indeed… Alleluia.
 
Selah
                                                                                                                
 


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Return to Emmaus

An amended reblog of a dialogue that we will be using today in our Easter Communion service at Belfast South...
 


Both:    You’ll never believe who we met…

Cleopas:    Really…

 Persis:       You’ll never believe it… It was amazing…

Cleopas:    Astounding…

Persis:       We didn’t recognise him ourselves at first…

Cleopas:    Now I had a wee inkling from the time he started talking to us…

Persis:       Actually Cleopas was really cheeky when he asked what we were talking about…Asked him what planet he was on over the past few days that he hadn’t heard what had happened in Jerusalem…

Cleopas:    I told him all that had happened over the previous few days…

Persis: I’m really embarrassed… There’s us telling him what had happened… As if he didn’t know!!!

Cleopas:    He genuinely didn’t seem to know what had been going on…

Persis:    It was dreadful to really think what had gone on… We were really devastated… All our hopes seemed to have been nailed to that cross with him… Then to add insult to injury… some of the women said that they had just come from the tomb and they couldn’t find the body…

Cleopas:    Things had looked bleak, but when the women came back from the tomb talking about the body being gone, I knew there was something happening…

Persis:       When he heard this he said: “So thick-headed! So slow-hearted! It’s all there in the prophets…”

Cleopas:    It’s all there in the prophets, you see. We talked about that as we walked along…

Persis:    He explained it as we walked along… How the Messiah had to suffer before entering into his glory…

Cleopas:    The seven miles to Emmaus flew by…

Persis:       Before we knew it we had reached our destination…

Cleopas:    It was late so we asked him to stay for supper…

Persis:       We asked him to stay for supper… but it was only an excuse… He looked as if he was heading on and we didn’t want him to leave us…

Cleopas:    So he came in for a bite to eat… I had hoped to talk more about his fulfilment of the prophecies…

Persis:       But he didn’t stay long… Only until he had given thanks to God for the food and broken the bread… And then I remembered…

Cleopas:    I remembered what the other disciples told us he had said at the Passover supper the night before he died…

Persis:       This bread is my body, broken for you… this wine is my blood, poured out for you…

Cleopas:    As often as you do this remember me…

Persis:       I remembered…

Cleopas:    And he disappeared. Persis sat there with her eyes wide as dinner plates and her jaw dragging on the ground.

Persis:       Cleopas was just as astounded as I was… but he would never admit it…

Cleopas:    Once she came to I was keen to talk about all that had happened to us…

Persis:       Once I came to, I wanted to tell the others what had happened to us…

Cleopas:    We headed back to Jerusalem…

Persis:       We almost ran the whole way…

Cleopas:    Got there in half the time it took us in the other direction…

Persis:       Yet, it seemed so much longer without him with us…

Cleopas:    But by the time we got there others had seen him too… It was old news…

Persis:       It was amazing news… Jesus was alive…

Cleopas:    But Jesus had walked with us to Emmaus… I’ll hold onto that until my dying day…

Persis:       We had walked with Jesus to Emmaus…

Cleopas:    Maybe I’ll write a book… Seven Miles with Jesus…

Persis:       But the journey isn’t over yet…


Selah


 



Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Blacksmith

A piece written for a Waterfront Hall event by New Irish Arts on Easter Saturday 2001. It's a long time ago now, but it's actually inspired by an even older piece which was, I think, written by Patrick Evans and performed by Pete Craig, fellow Bedlam "inmates", back in April 1986... I never actually saw that script, so I can't tell you whether I stole any lines, though I doubt that I retained any over the intervening 15 years.

(Blacksmith working at an anvil throughout)
Holiday-makers! Damned nuisance if you ask me! Every year it's the same Hardly any work for the ten months after Pentecost, then they all flock into Jerusalem for the Passover. And they all want a few wee jobs done when they're here. Pots and pans. Shoeing the odd horse, and let me tell you, some of the horses they ask me to shoe are pretty odd! Mending a set of scales. Watch out that's a precision instrument they tell you. Hah! That's what I think of their precision instruments! (Bangs hammer down on piece of metal on anvil then throws it onto scrapheap)
Still, shouldn't complain. Brings in the shekels. It's just they all want everything done yesterday. And if I don't get things done before the Sabbath I'll have the Pharisees breathing down my neck. And let me tell you, given the halitosis of some of those boyos, the last thing you want is them breathing all over you. Then there's the Romans. They've always got work for you. Just finished a job for them. Would be a nice little earner except they're a bit slow on the paying up. But I'm not going to dander round to Pontius Pilate and say look mate, you've had your 30 days. Cough up! I may not be trained in diplomacy, but I know when its best to put tip and shut up for fear of getting intimately acquainted with the sharp end of a legionary's spear.

Its a far cry from days gone by up in Nazareth. That's where I'm from, way back when. It’s a wee bit smaller than Jerusalem, and then some. There's a proverb about Nazareth. Did anything good ever come out of Nazareth? Aye. The road to Jerusalem! But I'm telling you, on days like this I could do with being back up there again. Good clean Galilean air. No hurry. No hassle. No Romans. No work. That's why I had to leave. I mean, it's all very good living in a one-horse town, but not if you shoe horses for a living! Most of the fellas I grew up with were the same. Head down to the sea for the fishing. Or stay long enough to learn your trade then head off to one of the big cities to make your fortune. Others took off to join the Zealots in the hills. Fighting the Romans. There may not be much money in that, but at least it’s exciting. Better than staring at the four walls in Nazareth.

Last time I was up in Nazareth they'd all gone, all my old mates. Jethro the weaver. Peter the stonemason. That waster Nathan. Even Jesus the Carpenter had packed up and gone. Mind you he had stuck it longer than most of us. Thirty years he'd been there. I thought he was part of the fixtures. But my folks say that one day he just up and went. They thought he'd just headed down to the cities like the rest of us. But then he arrives back, claiming to be the Messiah. The Saviour. Even the Son of God.

People had never been too sure that Joseph was his real Father. Word was that Mary, his mother had been putting it about a bit before the wedding, but no-one ever realised what exalted circles she had been moving in. According to my Ma, she and Joseph slipped off to their home town of Bethlehem at the time of the census, and when they came back they had a son. And here he was, thirty years later claiming to be the Son of God. Needless to say, the townsfolk told him to sling his hook.

I must say that I was a bit surprised to hear all that. He was always a nice guy. Fairly normal, if a little straight. The townsfolk loved him as their carpenter. He did a good job and never over-charged them. But I don't suppose those are the only credentials needed to be accepted as the King of Kings. Still, thirty years of living in Nazareth would send anyone barking mad No, as I say, I didn't really believe the whole Son of God bit. I heard that he was travelling around Galilee as a wandering teacher and preacher, and that seemed to fit. Fairly innocuous. But as for claiming to be the Son of God. No, my Nazareth sources must have got the wrong end of the stick, I thought...

Until last week, when who should turn up among the holidaymakers but the King of Kings himself. I didn't see him until a couple of days ago. But I'd heard about this guy from Nazareth who had gone in and ransacked the Temple market. I must confess, I'd thought about it a few times myself. I mean, that place is an absolute rip off. But to actually do it... Then, apparently he claimed that if the temple was demolished he would rebuild it in three days. I'm telling you, he'd have to be paying a fair few stonemasons overtime to pull that one off! Well, needless to say the priests didn't like all that too much, and so within a couple of days they had him in the clink on a charge of blasphemy. Then, somehow they got the Romans in on the act because the next thing was he was on trial before Pilate.

That's where I met him, early this morning. I was making my latest delivery up to the garrison. He had just been condemned by the looks of it. He was in a dreadful state; I hardly recognised him. The soldiers were having a great time. Since he's the King of Kings they'd wrapped him in a purple cloak and jammed a crown of thorns down onto his head. Very funny... Comedians like that eat babies for an encore. I just wanted to be somewhere else very quickly. I just threw my delivery into the guardhouse and left.

Another job done… not that they'll ever pay me for it. Which is a pity, because they use a lot of nails.
Shalom



Monday, April 14, 2014

Heroes and Villains, Saints and Sinners

Hero or villain. Saint or sinner. No. I’m not talking about Luis Suarez, but I’m a Liverpool fan, so you might guess my opinion there. How we define people often depends on our personal perspective and the truth is usually more complicated than such a simple definition. We in this province know that well, particularly in the messy business of making peace after a period of prolonged and profound conflict. (You just have to check out the responses to the presence of Martin McGuinness at the state banquet in Windsor Castle last week for evidence of that.)
This is Holy week, the run-up to Good Friday, where we reflect on the price Jesus paid to make peace between us and God, followed by the resurrection joy of Easter Day. Personally I’m fascinated by the characters we’ve traditionally portrayed as villains in the Holy Week story. Judas Iscariot - wondering what his motivation was for betraying his teacher. Was it all just a matter of money or something else? Pilate, the ultimate populist politician, bowing to the will of the baying crowd then literally washing his hands of the consequences. And Caiaphas, the High Priest, the religious leader who said it was better that one man die, rather than allow the whole nation to perish. 
A late friend of mine called Caiaphas “the patron saint of the peace process” because of his cynical pragmatism, but he might easily share that title with Judas, or Pilate. Money, short-term populism AND political pragmatism have all played their part since the signing of the Good Friday agreement just over 16 years ago. We ARE in a better place than before it, but what has flowed from it has not been unalloyed good, and as of yet we haven’t really moved on as a people from the pain of Good Friday to the hope represented by Easter day…
But instead of Caiaphas as the patron saint of our peace process, perhaps a more positive role model might be the saint who is venerated today in the French Catholic church… St. Benezet, also known as Benoit the Bridge builder, a 12th century shepherd boy who was inspired to build a bridge across the river Rhone at Avignon. That, in turn inspired, not only the famous French song about dancing on the Pont D’Avignon… but also an entire brotherhood of bridgebuilding monks…
Perhaps in addition to the existing religious and loyal orders that are part of the religious and cultural landscape of Ireland we need a new order of bridgebuilders; people who are ready to reach across the yawning chasms of our society; spanning religious, political, cultural and economic divides…
As we approach Good Friday and remember that Christ gave his life to bridge the infinite gap between us and God, perhaps we need to give our lives over to building bridges, so that the hope of the Good Friday agreement might become a living reality for many more people.
 
(This is a slightly expanded version of this morning's Thought for the Day on Good Morning Ulster - as usual you can find a recorded version of my dulcet tones on the Radio Ulster website for the next 7 days. You will find me 25 and 86 minutes in to the programme)
 
Shalom


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Leaders Learn and Lead

"A week is a long time in politics," Harold Wilson is reputed to have said 50 years ago... Time seems to have got faster in the subsequent half-century, and this past week has flown past, meaning that after promising further posts in a day or two, here I am not having posted anything in a week... But that week has seen a substantial range of political developments here in Northern Ireland...

Including:

In my last post and thought for the day last week I said:
I long for leaders in the political realm, in wider civic society and in the church who will help us focus our vision firmly on the future; not sweeping the problems of the past under a psychological carpet, but seeking to learn from them and shaping a place where we may embrace each other and whatever lies ahead, with hope…
In the light of that it is good to see that Sinn Fein have learned from the public response to their graceless handling of the Queen's visit to Ireland, and are now seeking to lead their core supporters into a new attitude to the British Royal family. I know that this has got more to do with electoral politics than a real change of heart, and I don't think they are going to become ardent royalists any time soon, but that is OK... their ultimate political aspirations are as legitimate as any unionist advocate of constitutional monarchy... But it is good to treat other people and the legitimate institutions they represent with respect... If that respect for the Queen might lead Sinn Fein to more obvious signs of respect for those who value symbols of the Kingdom of which she is head, such as the Union flag, then perhaps their political opponents might not feel so defensive about this and the erosion of what they see as other dimensions of  their Britishness (although I have yet to hear a clear articulation of what these are, beyond "the loss of the ROYAL Ulster Constabulary").

But this leads me on to the clear LACK of learning by the Unionists in City Hall with regard to the potential visit of the Pope. Prophecies of trouble on the streets in response to such a visit are exactly the same as were pronounced in advance of the flag vote in the City Hall. But there is no pride to be taken in such prophecies coming true (especially when, in the case of the flag vote the Unionist parties contributed to the tensions with an inflammatory leaflet campaign)... City councillors are not elected to be prophets of doom but to be political leaders... Yes, to represent the views of their constituents appropriately... but also to help shape the political direction of the communities which they represent... Leaders should actually lead their people in a direction that is good for them and the wider community, rather than position themselves as the mouthpieces of what will ultimately be a self-destructive angry mob... If Pope Francis is seen as a divisive figure in loyalist communities, what are Unionist politicians actually doing to address the shameless sectarianism that underpins that attitude? There may be legitimate theological differences, but that is unlikely to be the rationale behind these threatened riots... In exactly the same way that the flag on City Hall was really only a pretext for riots... Take a look at state of the Union flag outside Ballymacarrett Orange Hall or on street lights the length and breadth of loyalist areas to see the respect for the flag of the UK... Address the real reasons for the riots, complex though they may be, rather than acting as apologists in advance of them...

And one of the deep seated issues behind the rioting is the disaffection felt by young loyalist men... who have no stake in a new Northern Ireland, because the peace dividend has never really penetrated their areas. The riots in loyalist areas in 2003-4 that prompted an earlier Loyalist Task Force in government, clearly identified educational underachievement as a major issue. There was piecemeal attempts to address this that were short term and diluted by having to be equality proofed in simplistic numerical terms... 10 years later and it seems that the same issues are being pointed at. Yet there is no doubt that the divisive nature of our education system, not only Catholic-Protestant, male-female, and across socio-economic divides exacerbates a phenomenon that is being seen all across the UK... The later is clearly bolstered by the transfer test. When I came through it in 1977 it was still a bridge to opportunity for working class kids... But in the intervening years the drawbridge has been pulled up and fewer and fewer working class kids in unionist areas are making the transition. The reasons for that are complicated, yet the fact is that it is a system that is failing working class unionist boys more than most (truth be told Catholic working class boys don't fare well either, but are still doing twice as well as their protestant equivalents), yet few Unionist politicians are brave enough to say this... Why? Might it be because they would be perceived to be agreeing with the assessment of successive Sinn Fein education ministers? So rather than actually work to achieve something positive for their electorate, or at least a potential electorate of the future, they would prefer to maintain this Mexican stand-off that blights the lives of kids taking the tests... and even more those who choose not to take them...

But it is not just Unionists who are prepared to do their electorate a disservice rather than conspire with the enemy in an act of mature political leadership. I am no cheer leader for welfare reforms (a leading DUP politician told me lately that he would be shocked if I was)... I do believe that the Welfare System needs reformed, but I don't believe that a time of economic austerity is necessarily the time to do it... Especially when it is driven by a doctrinaire Conservative party that would actually eradicate most of the welfare system if it could get away with it. However, it is a fait a complis... Westminster have passed this iniquitous legislation and within a year it will really start to bite when the old computer system managing working tax credits and child benefit is switched off in mainland GB... If there is no Universal Credit system implemented here by then, forget about the various fines that have been talked about this week, that will have an effect of front line services in hospitals, schools etc, but may be hard to differentiate from all the other cuts coming our way... the big effect will be directly on the family budgets of those dependent on such benefits to get by, including many of the working poor... I don't have the exact figures on hand, but it will be significant. And it will affect those in working class loyalist AND republican areas most. Standing Canute like and saying "No" to the reforms is as pointless as Ulster saying no in the mid eighties... or indeed L:abour Liverpool saying no to the cuts that came from Thatcher around the same time. The thing to do is to work together to find ways to ameliorate the worst effects of the cuts (because I agree with Sinn Fein in this, they ARE cuts, not simply reforms). Until the finer details of the negotiations between Nelson McCausland's team at DSD and the UK treasury and Work and Pensions Department team are published I couldn't honestly say whether that has been done... but the finger needs to be extracted by all parties here to see that it is, before they pull the plug on that tax-credit computer next year... The clock is ticking...

In all of these situations there are party political games being played... sadly they are frequently nasty sectarian games, where each party is quick to point out on The View, Nolan, facebook, blogs and elsewhere, the many areas where OTHER parties are playing sectarian games... But rarely are areas of common cause highlighted... And that is because, sadly, our political system here is still a sectarian headcount (and when it comes to next year's assembly election that sectarian headcount is actually hardwired into the system). Don't get me wrong, I do believe that there are a lot of politicians in most parties working hard for their constituents, and often regardless of who those constituents originally voted for, but because of the political power blocs in this province, even the best constituency politicians often end up getting sucked into divisive politics... and so don't really lead and seek to shape wider society, but are shaped by it... by old fears and prejudices.
Sadly, because of that I don't really think we can look to our politicians for much leadership until the elections are over in May... but then there's the marching season... and then they'll be gearing up for next year's assembly elections... and maybe Westminster elections after that... There's always another reason not to change... not to lead...

So it is perhaps time for wider civic society, including the church, to step up to the mark and fill the leadership vacuum... There may be accusations of "Who elected you!?" but in this community, being able to answer "no-one" to that actually allows for flexibility... the ability to learn and thus to lead more effectively.