Mike Nesbitt – the man for the time?

There is no doubt that Ulster Unionism has been struggling to find its place. It hasn’t been alone of course in this new era in which the sharp ends of our politics have found a way to meet in the middle, or somewhere about the middle at least, while those who once sat in the middle ground have found nowhere to rest. So they have become cranky like most of us do when we get overlooked or aren’t appreciated. The UUP and the SDLP put in a considerable amount of steady work over the years, not resorting to violent means but at the same time of course being part of the whole diabolical structure of our sectarian, conflicted society which needed so badly to be transformed. But they rightly have said so many times that they weren’t the worst. So it has been hard for both parties to ‘find themselves’ in a society that was changing and beginning that change by moving away from the good/bad model of society to the ‘we’re all in this together’ model.

Perhaps that is something of a clue for the man who will want to be the man for the time. Mike Nesbitt is a man of big character. He speaks loudly and clearly, he has ideas and he is not afraid of his own authority. So he has the potential to lead with strength and with character and certainly a bit of personality in politics never goes amiss. But he will face many challenges, of which he is very well aware, and as he faces them he has to be careful to restrain his strength of character just enough so as to persuade rather than coerce the party faithful and many more besides who can still find something in Unionism that they haven’t found elsewhere. It is a work of both internal capacity building and of outreach. For the internal capacity building it is a matter of putting together a message that will inspire confidence among the people who will help him to make it work or make his life such a living hell that he will go to the wall. For the outreach work it is a matter of restating unionism in a way which is attractive and hopeful, proactive and concerned but maybe most of all, in my view at least, of being connected with the world beyond its own walls. That for me has been the greatest disappointment of middle unionism – it has not been able to stretch out to include a cross-section of this societies classes, creeds and peoples.

So is Mike the man for our time? If politics isn’t to finally fall into a two party tug-of-war with Alliance in the middle then he needs to be that man. If politics is to open up new fields of debate and community growth and engagement then he needs to be the man.

Clearly Mike comes to this with more than a sense of call from his own party, although he both needs and has that. He comes to this with a sense of call from somewhere much deeper in his soul and from one much greater than any political domain or dynasty. When Mike commented on the Sunday reading on his website and hinted that he would run as party leader he was hinting that for him there was more afoot. It takes courage to answer the call and it will take courage to lead. Rather than pulling him apart before he gets started maybe it is time for us to look to Mike Nesbitt and to our other politicians as the people for our time, given to leadership. We have the right to call them to account but when we overstep that right to become perpetually disappointed and bitter and cynical maybe we have stolen our leaderships vocation from them. So if we change our expectations and our hopes and our way of speaking about our leaders maybe it could be different, maybe we could see more done. In fact, it might transform our political context altogether.


For the times they are a-changing – Peter Robinson’s Speech

From time to time something happens in our politics which gives a new sense of hope. Peter Robinson’s ‘Edward Carson’ lecture at Iveagh House is one of those events. By the time I had finished reading the speech I was asking myself why I don’t hear more from this Peter Robinson? I think this kind of reflective, challenging, open and energetic thought would enhance our politics if it were more frequently shared. Of course that might not always be possible but to have personality and dynamism ‘at the top’ certainly appeals to me as an ordinary citizen.

I would have to confess to knowing very little about Edward Carson – I know a broad outline of what he was about and I’ve seen the statue. So it was interesting to learn that he was one of only a few non-monarchs to have a state funeral in the UK. This he shares with   Winston Churchill. Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. I am very aware of how Carson holds both a place of affection and inspiration in the hearts of unionists and am interested to note that Robinson believes the Carson legacy still has something good to offer to a new Northern Ireland. As one of those inspired by Carson Robinson acknowledges,


“… the inheritors of the Carson legacy, have a real opportunity to build the kind of Northern Ireland which Lord Carson envisaged.”


In applying the legacy and travelling in the inspiration Robinson notes both ‘timeless and enduring values’ and the need for and importance of change. Change is something he identifies both in how conflict is resolved and in the tools we employ to negotiate our way through our differences. But he also points to a changed identity in unionism arguing that good politics requires change. Irish Unionism became Ulster Unionism and for some is Northern Irish unionism. This change is something, he argues, that Carson would have approved of, which can be clearly seen in unionist politics and which is essential for the survival of unionism:


“In my forty years in politics it is clear that only those who can adapt to changing circumstances remain standing.”


So Robinson then sets out his hope for the future and appropriately so for in thinking about the past it is never helpful if the past becomes our prison. Those actors of the past would not have wanted to trap the next generation but to inspire and energise it and so when we look to the past it should always be for inspiration and energy, That is the best way to honour our forbears. The new unionism envisaged is one that will be far more inclusive, far more outreaching and far more dynamic than it has been in the past. It is a constructive energy which has the power to attract those who traditionally have not looked to the unionism community for hope. And it is a unionism that addresses the divisions up and down society as well as across it. That in itself is a challenge worth facing up to.

“I want to see a broad and inclusive unionism that can embrace all shades of those who support Northern Ireland’s present constitutional position. Unionism must reach far beyond its traditional base if it is to maximise its potential. That means forming a pro-Union consensus with people from different religious and community backgrounds.”


What I find most encouraging about the variety of events that have taken place over this last few weeks, particularly in London and Dublin, is that there is a determination to move from the past to the future with a view to a different future, one in which relationships continue to be transformed and as I would describe it to a more reconciling dynamic in all our future relationships. This new dynamic is a matter for everyone – North, South, East, West, across classes as well as borders and involving every section of the community, including the churches. This is both evidence of how things have changed and of a new hope for the future. The last word to Robinson:

“It is evidence of our collective determination that this decade of centenaries shall contribute to creating greater understanding rather than promoting division. It is also a sign of real progress that unionists and nationalists can consider the events of a century ago, in a spirit of respect, reconciliation and understanding of our shared history.”


One has to wonder where this leaves what used to be ‘middle’ unionism. Tomorrow night will tell a tale but there is much to be done, much vision to be discovered and shared and certainly a new dynamism to be translated out into the public square. Without that kind of change in the UUP there is little hope for their future I fear.

The full text of Peter Robinson’s speech can be found at



Suicide – the end of hope?

In June 2011 Manchester University released its National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness. This UK-wide project was commissioned by the Public Health Agency. In the forward to the report the Minister for Health, Edwin Poots, wrote:

…to reduce the risk of suicide it is important, where possible, to identify common themes and patterns.

The report established a link between suicide and mental ill health with 295 of people who committed suicide having had previous contact with mental health services.

However, the figure also clearly reveals that there are a substantial number of suicides which arise out of contexts where there is no identifiable mental ill health. It is, therefore, important to identify other themes in the cause and reasons for suicide in NI. It is important if strategies are to be developed which can effectively address the problem we are facing and the pain of a society that is now being torn apart by the ramifications of suicide.

2000 – 2008 1,865 suicides occurred in NI. The evidence is that suicide is on the increase.

207 suicides per year, lower only than in Scotland.

29% of suicides were people who had previous contact with mental health services.

The information gathered in relation to young people is the most revealing and the most challenging and is best quoted directly from the report:

The largest difference between suicide rates in Northern Ireland and other UK countries was in young people and they should be a priority for suicide prevention. 332 suicides occurred in people under 25 during 2000-2008, 37 per year. Young people who died by suicide were more likely than other age- groups to be living in the poorest areas and they had the lowest rate of contact with mental health services (15%). Young mental health patients who died by suicide tended to have high rates of drug misuse (65%), alcohol misuse (70%) and previous self-harm (73%).

The report recommends that further work be done to establish why the suicide levels are higher in NI than in England and Wales. Additionally the Protect Life strategy to address suicide needs to be monitored and its effectiveness established. Mental Health services need to pay attention to the figures and services for young people need to take careful account of the information, not least in areas which it has already been established are areas where suicide is more likely to occur. Indeed we might contend that rather than waiting to form a responsive strategy there should be proactive strategies and services at work in these identified areas to seek out at risk young people and to begin to address their difficulties with them and alongside others trusted in the locality.

As it happens there are a considerable number of support groups and responses in local areas which in itself makes effective co-ordination of services a difficulty. The difficulty of pulling services together may further endanger young people as the lack of co-ordination can be coupled with a lack of skill, although often not of experience, in the field. Delivering an effective, skilled, proactive service which is co-ordinated and targeted seems to me to be of paramount importance at this juncture. The Protect Life strategy was published in October 2006 and ran until 2011. It seems to me that this is still under review with information gathering still in progress and a way forward still being charted. I may be wrong but I cannot locate anything more up to date than the 2006-2011 strategy.

Why does any of this matter to me today? It matters because for the second time in four months I have had to walk behind a hearse among a crowd of young people saying goodbye and paying their last respects to a member of their peer group, a friend, a brother, cousin, son, grandson, partner, father. The horror of the silence eventually settles in behind the wailing and the wrenching grief that before your eyes wracks the bodies of young people who know that this experience is out of place and unnatural. Unable to cope, having turned to whatever they turned to for help, alone and distressed there was no way out it seemed but to take their own life. The reality of what is left behind is a story too hard to tell, there are no words for the loneliness of the mother, the burden of a father, the dismay of siblings and the ever present grief of friends who once laughed with the one now cold and still and unresponsive. So whatever is going on in the world of planning and preparation there are some things that need to be done and they need to be done with some haste if they have not yet been done:-

  • the information needs to be pulled together properly and it needs to be easily updated with the passing of time so that changes can be charted without waste of time or resources
  • a much firmer strategy of co-ordination needs to be put in place so that well-meaning people who have much to offer can do that in the best way possible and not leave themselves with more guilt than they already have
  • the social circumstances need to be taken seriously. The streets awash with drugs and alcohol will not clear themselves. Education, good policing, effective community work all in a co-ordinated movement to provide a new and more hopeful world for young people who are not only losing hope but also losing life – it all has to be pulled together without delay
  • if there are people who can help deliver to the streets what will make a difference then government needs to call them in, resource them further and empower them to make the difference that needs to be made

If we don’t deal with this as a society, if we don’t learn not only to value life but to treasure every young person – privileged and impoverished alike – then there is no hope for us. There is no hope for a healthy and shared society if all we do is draw new lines of division and pat ourselves on the back for getting rid of the old ones. So

Dear Mr Poots

What is being done?

What more needs to be done?

How quickly can it be done?

Is there anything I can do?

Drugs, alcohol, self-harm and poverty – what needs to be done and when can we see a co-ordinated, resourced, effectively informed response?

Yours sincerely


Give Unionism hope – confidence and content please!

So the race for the party leadership begins.

Danny Kennedy stays out of the race – probably a wise decision although I am disappointed. I have a lot of time for the clean cut and thoughtful man from Armagh who speaks what he thinks and thinks his own thoughts.  There is a quiet, deep integrity to Danny, to my mind anyway, but always contained by a shyness or diffidence that has kept him somewhat in the background. He had done his bit though and I am sad that he didn’t give it a go the last time around.

So now it has to be down to a couple of different voices to run this race if Unionism is to have any hope at all. They are different from the usual voice of Unionism and both of them, in very different way, offer a new tone to how Unionist politicians engage with the issues of the day. There is no bluster with McCallister but a country settledness which almost defies us to trust his competence. But listen carefully to the words and there is a different story, and not just about the ‘opposition’. He has spoken out with his own views and he needs to maintain that difference from the voices of the past to make himself a real runner.

Therein though lies a danger for both candidates. If they speak with too different a voice will they get the vote they need to be elected? It will be a fine balancing game to measure against your opponent and the degree of difference they too are willing to take to themselves. The party faithful have a choice to make and it has to be the last chance to choose for death or for life. If they choose more of the same then what is there for them? But they will want some security in the choice they make – change takes time.

Nesbitt speaks with an undoubted strength and his noise implies content so we must listen carefully for the content and he must speak carefully to provide it. With his business head and his broadcasting experience he has the confidence to offer up what he is in a way that can agitate as well as give confidence. He has the energy and the drive and ‘a bit of life about him.’

I wish them both well and I am impressed by the willingness of both men to offer themselves into the leadership of a party desperately in need of transformation. Whoever is elected will need the foil that comes from people of hope as well as from the old guard that will want to rein them in. So give us confidence and content – each needs the other and each builds the other up. Good content brings confidence along with it and confidence supports the belief that there is content. Each needs the other.

There will be plenty of armchair politicians with plenty to say, myself among them. For now – God’s speed and God’s blessing. Give it your best and give the electorate your best.


Sorry – the hardest word but is it enough?

On Saturday 3rd March Brian Rowan reported in the Belfast Telegraph on the  challenge Sinn Fein’s national chairman, Declan Kearney, brought to the IRA to say ‘sorry’ not for the war but for the hurt caused by all its armed actions. Sorry, it has been said, is among the hardest of all words to say but it is also said that sorry is one of those words that has transformative power. Even the British government knows that sorry can change things these days. Kearney said:

“Regardless to the stance of others, we should recognise the healing influence of being able to say sorry for the human effects of all actions during the armed struggle,… All sensible people would wish it had been otherwise; that these events had never happened, that other conditions had prevailed. The political reality is those actions cannot be undone, or disowned. A deep suspicion remains within unionist communities towards republicans due to the legacy of the armed struggle. This is a time for republicans to free up our thinking, to carefully explore the potential for taking new and considered initiatives in the interests of reconciliation.”

Kearney’s challenge has yet to be publicly responded to by the leadership of the Republican Movement in the sense that we have not yet heard how, or even if, they will move to such an apology –  a ‘sorry.’ But Kearney’s article in An Phoblacht has engendered much conversation. Rowan, rightly I think, situates this article and the idea it transmits into the public domain as part of the Republican Movements process to engage beyond ceasefire with political realities and with the process of reconciliation.

I cannot yet let go of my belief that there are Republicans who believe that this process of reconciliation will lead to everyone joining ‘their side’. But that is in no way to suggest that they are disingenuous. The truth about us all is that we hope, in the inner recesses of our being, that reconciliation will mean that everyone comes to see it ‘my’ way. That’s why it takes a big heart and a sturdy character to  become involved in reconciliation. The deepest human fears have to be faced in that process – the fear that you might have been wrong all along, that your view of the world might have been compromised by your own prejudices and that it is you that will have to do the changing. But what the process of reconciliation offers is, in the short-term, companions with the same worries about the process and, in the longer term, a more robust view of the world developed through engagement and shared across a broader base of people. That means a developing society which is more likely to cohere even when under stress. So suspicion of Republican engagement in a process of reconciliation is natural. In that sense none of us is above suspicion when it comes to what we want out of the process.

Ironically a willingness to say sorry is at least to credit enemies with a humanity that isn’t always attributed to them. It is to look someone in the eye whom you were once prepared to dehumanize and injure at best and at worst murder.

It would be churlish to look to the Republican political agenda as evidence of a devious game in play. That political agenda is made clear by Kearney elsewhere:

Our political strength in the North remains solid; it has provided the momentum for our national project in recent years. But there is still untapped electoral and party-build potential.
The objective in the North must be to maximise our electoral performance. However, in learning from our experience of the last four years, a step change is needed as to how Sinn Féin uses our political authority and power in the institutions.
The party’s strategic position in the North has grown out of national and democratic struggle. Our political strength now needs refocused upon the growing primacy of economic and social issues. Beyond the Northern elections we need to bring forward a coherent political strategy for delivering change in government and ensuring maximum effectiveness in local councils. What next for Sinn Fein? By Declan Kearney March 4th 2012

So the attempt at ‘sorry’ is not to be snubbed. But it is also true that sorry is not enough and for some people it will never be enough and can never be enough. Sorry doesn’t repair the world. Sorry doesn’t bring back that which has been lost. Sorry doesn’t right the wrongs and rebuild the broken. The limitations of ‘sorry’ have to be acknowledged, even if it is the hardest word. Yet it holds transformative power at political and social levels for it allows people to begin to look each other in the eye and to acknowledge a shared humanity which had to be denied to keep the war going and which is often still denied in what are less deathly but neverhtheless sectarian circumstances. When we debase each other using words like ‘scum’ then we dehumanise. Sorry is a humanising word and that is a good place to start.

Unlike Harold Good I don’t believe that what Kearney said has to be responded to without suspicion. I believe that suspicion is crucial in the process of saying sorry and it is crucial that the sorry sayers face the suspicion that others have. Otherwise the sorry doesn’t mean very much and its healing power is decreased. What is important, though, is that suspicion doesn’t dull anyone to the intention for something new and to the possibility of a new hope, however fragile it might be, of a reconciling society.

We should not forget all that sorry acknowledges

– that there was one offended against

– that hurt has been caused

– that there is recognition of harm done

– that there is repair needed and this is an offer for that repair to begin.

Sometimes, in mediation practices for example, reparation is offered along with the sorry but always with the recogntion that things can never go back to the way they were. My personal belief is that this is a crucial thing to be said, over and over again – that things cannot be made right, that the past cannot be restored, that nothing can fill the gap left by one who has gone. Sometimes people are held back from responding to an offer of repair because they know things can’t be made right and they don’t want to be part of a pretence – so sorry should never be viewed as an attempt to make right or put back. Rather sorry is an attempt to begin repair work which will take people to somewhere new.

Equally it is true to say that sometimes people resist responding to sorry because they cannot let go of sorrow, grief and mourning because it so strongly attaches them to their lost loved one. It is a complex picture but without the clear acknowledgement that sorry does not, cannot and is not intended to be an attempt to gloss over what happened then the possibilities that saying sorry open up can always be resisted. The chink of light can be shut out and the transformative power of sorry can be lost. For some people in this society we must respect that choice.

For others there has to be liberty and courage to respond.


Remembering 1912 and all that


It would seem that British Irish relationships are in very good shape indeed. One has to wonder why there isn’t more excitement about this – old enemies stand together to remember a crisis in which they butted heads a century ago and they stand as friends who look like they have resolved the old tensions, at least some of them. Could this be a case of a miracle before our eyes but there are none so blind as those who will not see? Or is it more a case of Northern Ireland again dropped just below the radar, slightly out of sight and perhaps choosing to stay behind in the shadows? Are things as good on this small patch on the North East corner of the Island as they are on the Dublin/London axis? Perhaps if they were as good we would be paying more heed to momentous events such as the opening of an exhibition to mark the centenary of the Third Home Rule Bill. We are told a couple of very interesting things – let us not miss them:

1. The two men, that is Enda Kenny & Owen Patterson, were meeting to agree a joint statement of co-operation over the next 10 years, and

2. The two governments have agreed to work together in a variety of areas – including Europe, the economy and NI.

The significance of these statements should not be understated – but they will be. At the same time the two men recognise, however, that there are disagreements between them, notably on the investigation of the murder of Pat Finucane. On the one hand history can be faced and on the other hand there are still raw wounds. Nigel Dodds response shows that as he kicks off about the attitude of the Republics government to HMG regarding the Finucane Inquiry.  http://www.nigeldodds.co.uk/MainNewsArticles.asp?ArticleNewsID=320

It began so well, shaking hands and nodding heads and smiling faces. It might even be said that the ‘two men’ embodied a real challenge to the people of Northern Ireland. But then …. nothing changes. Why bother trying? Locally we are let off the hook all over again.


Good news from young people

Last night I was part of the large audience of people who gathered at the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra Inside Out Concert held at Fortwilliam & Macrory Presbyterian Church. It genuinely was a privilege and I don’t use the word ‘privilege’ as a kind of punctuation but with real feeling. The concert is part of a fundraising drive for the pupils at the School of Music for the various events that they put on and their summer tour programme. It is the young people taking responsibility for themselves and for what they want out of life. It was am impressive performance of skill and craft and love of performance. This was not pulled out of the hat without hard work, dedication and planning. Yes – all of those words can be attached to young people in our society, in today’s Belfast: responsibility, planning, love, hard word, dedication, skill craft. In large groups, small quartets and trios, as individual performers, as stage managers and as the ‘awesome’ link man the young people of CBYO put the programme together, planned it together, asked for help where they needed it and got on with it where they could get on with it. And they practiced and practiced and practiced some more to reach a standard of performance that was worth far more than the sum we were invited to give for the privilege of being there. A far cry from the stories we hear about young people who menace their neighbours, waste their lives and live with very little sense of self esteem. So congratulations CBYO. You are a credit to yourselves and a credit to Belfast. You demonstrated what community is, what commitment is, what love of life is and what friendship and good humour can give to life. I say it again – congratulations! Your legacy is a real one.


Unionism – still looking for direction?

So Tom Elliot isn’t going to stand again for election.

Elliott off – what next for the UUP?

A countryman at heart it seems the work and worry of the politics of reconstructing an effective Unionist Party wasn’t where he could move to happily. Who would argue that Unionism doesn’t need some reconstruction? But there may be those who would argue that it’s a waste of time. A waste of time, that is, for what used to be mainstream, middle of the road, decent Unionism has now become sidelined Unionism with too many gripes and not enough inspirational power or policy. The popular ground has been well populated by the DUP who have put themselves together as a working party with direction, political skill, character and ability.

So why do we need another Unionist Party? Or, for that matter, why do we need the SDLP as well as Sinn Fein? Why were we not warned that the middle ground would flip with the extremes to become an irrelevant kind of ‘slippage off stage’ while the extreme would flip into the centre where all the action, including the engagement, would take place.

I would argue that at this point in history we should not yet be ready to give up the ground to two large parties. I am not content that a growing strength in the Alliance Party is enough, together with other smaller parties. I am not quite ready to give up the other parties because I don’t believe we have managed to accept what it is to live with diversity in a way which respects difference and takes it seriously. Every now and again there slips out under the door of tight-lipped tolerance not only an inability to accept that there might be some validity in another view of the world but also an absolutism which refuses to even listen to that other view of the world.

Accepting that there are diverse views of the world and accepting that there can be room for listening without having to be converted to the opinion of the other is a place we need to reach if we are to move towards a future which is defined more by how society is reconciling than by how it is divided. We have to be able to listen to each other, maybe even to articulate the views of others as well, learning that seeing the world from another place isn’t all a bad thing. This should have no fear for anyone for what it enables each one to do is to see themselves better, to see how they are seen and how they are heard, increasing the effectiveness of what they present because they now know how they are seen and heard from the outside. It only makes sense. Diverity matters and the acceptance of the validity of diversity matters. But that is not the same thing as saying that difference doesn’t matter. Of course it matters and of course there are differences that will be intolerable and political views of the world that need to be challenged. But diversity does matter. If we can’t see diversity and listen to the differences then what hope is there on gender, race, disability or any other issues where there are vast and natural differences as well as those created by society.

All of this is to say that for the time being Unionism has something to offer within the package of diversity that we are still learning how to get our heads around in Northern Ireland. Mr Elliot’s stepping down provides the opportunity for the party to elect someone different, with different skills than the leaders of the past precisely because Unionism needs different skills at this point in its history. It can’t move entirely away from controversy because other parties will not accept all that Unionism claims. But it does need a big personality and certainly some big ideas. It also needs some big vision to pick itself up and out of the little ideas and into something worth proposing, worth risking, worth spreading and arguing for across society. I really hope that Unionism manages to pull it out of the hat. There are some big gaps in the market for creative and sensible thinking – Unionism gets it chance in just three weeks time!


Technology’s seduction

I just can’t resist. I have to admit it. Hands up, truth be told, give it up, reveal reality – I just can’t resist! Apple do it so well. Somewhere else it is said that image is everything and with Apple image matters. The presentation matters. The sound, the vision, the slick movement from one aspect of the presentation to another, it all matters. Somehow it doesn’t feel contrived or inauthentic. The build up, the self-aggrandisement, the applause, the new information, the product. The iPad has arrived. It seems that’s what we’re calling it – the iPad. Not 3 or 2S, just simply the iPad. Therein lies another aspect of this seductive technology – simplicity.

There are things I know – I know that what technology I have will continue to work well and that it is still a product to boggle the mind; I know that it will take some saving to be able to afford this new product; I know that there are things more worthy of my savings than this; I know that in parts of the world there is no internet connection, no way to maintain technology of this sort; I know that sometimes there are suspect work & employment practices; and I know that I have been taken in by technology’s incredible, seductive power. Yet, and here’s another truth, there are very few things in life I give in to or am driven by quite so much as Apple’s latest devices.

So take a look and if you don’t get it, well…. what can I say? Clearly you don’t appreciate this wonderful world in which ordinary human beings have learned to exercise God-given gifts to extremes which ten years ago could not even have been imagined. Take a look…