Who's in the Room?

It's one week on from the events at East Belfast Mission's Skainos Centre, and the effects of it rumble on. The next day I published on Facebook a couple of links to excellent pieces by friends and fellow bloggers Dave Magee and Steve Stockman. Gary Mason the Superintendent minister of  East Belfast Mission, and Glenn Jordan, the director of the Skainos Project, have also offered their personal reflections on the events that have impacted on them personally, on the ministry of EBM/Skainos and the lives of those living and working in the area.
It has taken me, however, substantially more time to gather my thoughts sufficiently to offer the following fragmented reflections. I hope that my musings don’t re-ignite any tensions, but I do believe that the events of that night, the run up to it and fallout from it deserve further thought… I was going to post it as a single blog of short snapshots, but it grew beyond that and so I’ll be rolling out a few connected posts over the next few days…
First, (for those with appalling memories or who are not constantly glued to the news in this conflicted little statelet), let me just remind you about what happened. Under the 4 Corners Festival banner, people were invited to come from all corners of the city to the Skainos Centre in inner east Belfast, to an event entitled “Listening to Your Enemies”. The idea was to hear the stories of Patrick Magee, IRA activist convicted for the planting of a bomb which blew up the Grand Hotel in Brighton when Margaret Thatcher and other members of the Tory party were staying there for their conference, and Jo Berry, whose father was killed in that blast. Outside Skainos loyalist protesters gathered, after someone had daubed anti-republican graffiti on the walls of the centre the previous evening. I entered the event just before it was due to start. Earlier violence had settled down to a stand-off between a group of about 150 protesters standing at the head of "Skainos Square" and across the Newtownards Road, and the black clad PSNI Tactical Support Group arranged in 2 lines further up the square, preventing the protestors from entering en mass. Neither protesters nor police tried to stop me getting in... I didn't hear any insults aimed at me, though, as I stood and talked with a colleague about what was happening, I saw a couple of brave men call a couple of older women "Scum" as they walked by... Equally the police didn't check my identity, so I don't know what was preventing the protestors coming in one by one... Anyway, I got in despite the difficulties, and was glad to be there although what was said was uncomfortable to listen to, and the whole evening has haunted my thinking for the past week...
The previous Monday night in South Belfast Methodist we had another, very successful and peaceful event as part of the 4 Corners Festival, where 4 church leaders from across the city told their stories against the background of the question "Is Christ Divided?" There were no protests outside that night, but in a previous era there would have been protests... maybe not as violent as last Thursday's, but not far off...
One of the reflections that night was that "the problem" was not with those "in the room" but those "out there" who were not prepared to listen to each other's stories or engage in difficult discussions. There is a consistent and at times valid criticism of much ecumenical engagement and community relations work being “nice people” talking to each other about “nice things” over tea and buns. But wherever people of different perspectives and backgrounds engage with each other, we have got to learn to deal with difficult issues… Recognising not only what we have got in common but where we differ and why. Otherwise we are fooling ourselves with the narrative that “sure, we’re all the same…” We’re not, and I thank God that we’re not…
However, there is a danger in always assuming that the problem is always somewhere else and someone else, be that those not so “enlightened” as us in terms of ecumenical or political engagement, those in positions of political leadership, those on “the other side”, or in certain flashpoints in the city, or those, as was the case last Thursday, literally outside the room.
In the past week there has been much recrimination, and questions about where Unionist politicians stand on this (and other issues such as the intimidation of a Sinn Fein teacher at the boys model, or Orange Grand Master  George Chittick telling protestants not to learn Irish)  with some (including friends and colleagues) suggesting that politicians need to be paying more attention to those inside the room on Thursday night than those outside. I, however, am just as uncomfortable with that variation on the game of "them and us" as I am with the more traditionally sectarian one...
If we are going to develop a city and wider society where everyone feels that they have a home then  not only do those inside the room need to have more honest and open conversations about difficult issues… we also need to find ways of getting those outside the room to come in rather than standing on the outside in the cold, or simply getting on with their lives pretending it has nothing to do with them.

When I next return to this I hope to reflect on the title of the event, and why “Listening to our Enemies” is important…


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