Tolerance is not enough: the 1912 Ulster Covenant and Citizenship Today

It was a privilege to sit in the company of people from all walks of life, different churches, and parts of Ireland last Thursday and listen to the reflections of leaders from across these Islands. The context was the marking of the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912 and the focus was citizenship in today’s society. Archbishop John Sentamu fitted the day into his busy life and brought his expected energy and clarity to the day’s thinking. He was unafraid as he spoke to Christians about their role as disciples of the Kingdom here in the kingdom of this world. He challenged us to critical solidarity with our leaders. Critical solidarity requires that we affirm our leaders but also that we are critical of them on matters of truth, justice and mercy should they fall short of the Christian standard. That is not, of course, about Christians standing up for Christians but more importantly about the Christian commitment to those who are without access to power but who desperately need to be on the receiving end of real truth, good justice and generous mercy. In this way the Christian’s role in the world is to infect it with God’s goodness. What we do we are to do as Christians and unashamedly so. The Archbishop caused the crowd to chuckle when he noted that if we do not speak up for ourselves then someone else will do it for us and then we will suffer that common Irish ailment – BSE, ‘blame someone else’.

His rally to take responsibility is well-placed as our society moves further into this time of local government. With the struggles that still lie ahead if we do not move from a ‘blame someone else’ mentality we will never get through them. I am thinking here about the difficult decisions that still have to be taken in education and healthcare. I am thinking about the appointment that is to made of a Victims Commissioner, or Commissioner(s). I am thinking of moving beyond a time when things are politically traded-off, this for that, and of reaching a time when there is a consensus reached across parties about how to go forward and if consensus can’t be reached then the issue is honestly thrashed out until compromises have been made and a way forward found. That time will have to dawn and if we are traverse the terrain which will be haunted by ghosts from the passed and rubbled by experiences and memories then responsibility will have to be faced for good governance to triumph over party-political governance or ‘constitutional question’ governance.

No wonder then that the Archbishop’s most critical point of the day was that tolerance will not do, it is quite simply not enough. Quite apart from it being far from Biblical in the Archbishop’s view it is also the road to a collapse of morality, a falling into an uncertain middle-mire which blurs identity and takes away hope. Tolerance makes anything go and nothing worth arguing for. So he offered us the concept of ‘gracious magnanimity’, a dynamic which is positive, which retains identity and resists moral collapse. Gracious magnanimity resists the danger of having people fester on the fringes and allows for full expression of differing positions. It requires a boldness from Christian people and indeed for all people in society for it requires an owning of the position on which one stands but also a clear statement of the willingness to compromise, to meet half way. How long have we resisted such concepts in Northern Ireland? How long have we dressed compromise up in other words when we have actually managed compromise? Gracious magnanimity offers the strength of gentleness, forbearance and moderation with the virtue of hope for it does not become Christians to be full of doom and  gloom. Gracious magnanimity offers the vision of inter-relatedness rather than the moral vacuum of a shared vision.

This was the challenge of the day, sturdy and hopeful. It came to us all, diverse an audience as we were and it was set in the context of a diverse group of contributors – Minister of State Hugo Swire, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan TD, Deputy Dara Calleary TD, Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick, Councillor Tom Hartley, Mr Philip Orr, Minister Nelson McCausland. Such diverse people seeking together for the vision of a new society and setting out together on a decade of centenaries which has the potential to pull us asunder or to build on our still fragile trust to bring about a stronger, more inclusive and graciously magnanimous society.

We were ably taken through the day by Mark Simpson, BBC Ireland Correspondent, who gave a sense of security to all taking part. The security he provided allowed participants to speak from their heart. Dara Calleary spoke inspiringly of what faith communities can offer, Tom Hartley showed off his historical knowledge and was matched in debate by the knowledge of Philip Orr and Nelson McCausland. Ministers Swire and Deenihan greeted each other like friends and shared the call to avoid hard judgements of each other and to create a new society. Deenihan offered a way to transcend our differences through listening to each other and recognising one another’s heritages. He set out the stall of both governments – to gain insight into unfamiliar histories over the next ten years and in particular for the Irish in the marking of 1916. Professor Kirkpatrick opened up the already existing diversities within the Presbyterian community, even at 1912, reminding us all that none comes from a commnuity which is complete when viewed as monolith but only when understood as a diversified miscellany even within the boundaries of faith, denomination, political party etc. Within the diverse group gracious magnanimity could perhaps be first learned and practiced and then launched into the greater context where it will face its greatest hurdles. But even as those hurdles are faced, gracious magnanimity, an announcement that we are willing to meet each other half-way, brings to birth the virtue of hope without which there is no life and no future.

There is so much more to be said, so much to debate, so much to learn and so much to hope for.


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