Yehudi Menuhin, better known for violins, said:
Peace may sound simple – one beautiful word – but it requires everything we have, every quality, every strength, every dream, every high ideal.
Today nothing sounds simple. The harsh and fighting words about victories won and skirmishes lost have been heard across Northern Ireland’s airwaves, and further afield, for more than a year now. Who won the flags issue? Who won the parades issue? Who is winning the Maze/Long Kesh dispute? Triumphalist words about victories won have no place when we are trying to build a shared, better and more reconciled future for the generations to come. I am not suggesting that we live a lie, but I am suggesting that we are living in the past when we continue to adopt the posture and vocabulary of victories won.
I am an ordinary citizen, looking for a Northern Ireland in which children do not have to grow up with the fears and divisions that I grew up with. I am looking for a Northern Ireland that makes no more victims, no more patriots, no more dead, no more parties willing to dominate others, no more lies, no more hate and no more loss.
Politics is politics of course. Every party has an eye to its own and to the others within its own community who are nay-sayers or slow to trust. There are good reasons to be slow to trust. There are also guiding principles to lead us through the darkness and despair of these moments when we more readily believe that the further peace we hoped for is slipping through our fingers. That future holds on to the prospect of a time when the past has less power than the future, a future in which everyone has their place and all face the prospect of flourishing without the threat of coercion or violence. The most crucial guiding principle is that of the future in which peace is made between and within communities. It is a future born out of dealing with the past and not living in the past.
Yes politics is politics and it requires the art of compromise. But compromises should be measured only against the future and if those compromises are not made in order to build a better future then they are, quite simply, compromises not worth making. There are choices to be made, even when engaging in the art of compromise. The difficulties that have beset our society and its peoples these last months cannot be underestimated. Month after month different groups of people have found it necessary to make public statement of who they are and where they have come from. They have felt the need to claim territory, to exclude others from that territory, to declare an identity, history and politics in which they feel safe. With a vacuum in shared leadership and with parties in disarray the trade-offs and deals which got us here are no longer enough. A very sophisticated politics of deal-making got us to where we are, but we need something more to take us on from here in the face of the chasm-like vacuum that explains all of the identity stating. It should never happen again, there is no doubt about that.
Those who want it all to happen again should hold no sway in communities of people who have much to offer but find themselves silenced with the mantle of the past. Somehow we have to find a way through all of this and if nothing else our history tells us that we can. We have found our way through complex and difficult times before. What makes this different for me are the ordinary lives of people who have been using every sinew and muscle to face up to the difficult issues and who are now trounced with the shouts of victory coming from all sides.
No matter what side we are on, victor or vanquished, there are no winners until we can all share the victory of a future in which the past has far less sway than the vision of a peaceful and more reconciled future. When Abraham Lincoln spoke he spoke courageously and in a manner that inspired others so that they did not settle into the shortcomings of the hour but engaged themselves in the tasks of creating a more peaceful, just and respectful world. His words have been heard down through the generations and help me to pick myself up today:
With malice toward none, with charity for all,
with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,
let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nations wounds.
Perhaps some prefer John Lennon:
Give peace a chance.
Giving peace a chance requires that we lay down the posture and vocabulary of dispute and difference in which we belittle one another. It requires that we set aside the language of victory which has been adopted on all sides It requires that we now look each other in the eye, with firmness in the right, to finish the work and bind up each others wounds so that we can finally make a society in which we are more defined by the ways in which we are reconciling than by our disputed past.