I saw this picture at the Forthspring 5 Decades Exhibition showing in the City Hall, Belfast. It is thought-provoking, punchy and heart-rending. I was reminded of pictures I had seen in Rwanda and of people I had met. So many people determined that what happened in Rwanda in 1994 would not happen again. 10 people were killed every minute. 10 000 people were killed every day. Over 1 million people were killed in 100 days. Staggering. Ethnic division and demonisation preparing the way for extermination.

In a recent Panel Discussion held by the United Nations to Mark 20 years after the Rwandan Genocide, the Deputy Secretary General of the UN, Jan Eliasson, said that when we continue to speak of ‘never again’ we are expressing continuing failure. I think I would prefer to say that we are admitting we have not yet got it right and there is much work to be done.
So how might we know that we have not yet got it right? Beyond the continuing need to speak of ‘never again’ how might we know?
General Romeo Dallaire was the Force Commander UN Mission to Rwanda at the time of the genocide. There was no one who had given more stark and clear warnings to the International Community of what lay ahead for that country. His warnings went unheeded until it was too late, until, in the words of Eugenie Mukeshimana of the Genocide Survivors Network, the crime was ‘too great to punish.’ These days Dallaire works to prevent conflict and expends his energies in defining warning signs. The clearest warning sign, says Dallaire, is the use of children and young people as the instruments of war to acheive the ends of adults who are intent on destroying one another. He speaks of child soldiers, of youth used to provide the supports needed for conflict, of young lives dehumanised and the debasing of all humanity as long as conflict continues. He does not shirk the failures of the International Community – ‘and we watched.’ Those words become all the more moving when set alongside the words of Eugenie Mukeshimana, ‘we waited and nobody came.’
All of this got me thinking about our situation in Northern Ireland. We spend so much time thinking about young people but do we take it seriously when we hear that paramilitary groupings are recruiting young people? Do we take it seriously when we hear that young people who were moving away from being ‘at risk’ are being pulled back into the types of crime that will generate income for those paramilitary groupings? Do we take it seriously when children and young people are found in the vanguard of protests and violence? Or are we inclined to say that’s only to be expected in certain areas or certain communities?
Dallaire would argue that the flagrant use of youth as the weapons of conflict should be viewed as a warning that must not be ignored. In his own words, you, ‘don’t neutralise a weapon by picking up the pieces afterwards.’


Never Again: what will it take?


Lower than a snake’s belly in a tractor groove.

It was one of those days for quotations. I was at the local shop and the woman behind the counter asked me how I was. On telling her I was fine she told me she’d been ‘lower than a snake’s belly in a tractor groove.’ Graphic. Raw. Visceral. It is a Belfast beautiful phrase from one of those wonderful Belfast people who tend to tell you how it is. I can say that. I’m not from Belfast. She went on to tell me what had made a difference to her when she was feeling low – the friends who sat with her and didn’t tell her there were those worse off than her. Street wisdom of the soundest kind.

I’ve been thinking on one of the lines from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem:

There’s a crack in everything

That’s where the light gets in.

There’s a crack in everything – our lives, our communities, our cities, our town-lands. You name it and there’s a crack in it. When I was a child I used to try to miss stepping on the cracks in the pavement. There was something abominable about them. Cohen has more enlightenment. Without the cracks in our lives we close down and close in on ourselves. We pretend all is well when, in fact, we still need the light to get in.

And finally, Flannery O’Connor:

There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. 


I had the privilege of being MC at the launch of the 4corners festival in Belfast. The theme is storytelling. It’s a big theme in Northern Ireland. We all want to tell our stories. We all want someone significant to listen. The Historical Abuse Inquiry has opened and there those who suffered will get the chance to speak, to tell their story, to someone in authority in the hope that it will make all the difference.

O’Connor reminds us that we are all looking for redemption, healing, hope, a new beginning. As we tell our stories and as we are privileged to listen to the stories of others there is the persistent demand for the redemptive act, a persistent striving that what has fallen will at least be given the chance to be restored. That is hope, hope so ingrained that it gives everything that falls a chance to be restored. That is the redemptive act in the relationship between speaking and listening, storytelling and story hearing. Just another place where the light gets in.

See the whole 4 corners festival programme for places where the light will be getting in –


What do we have to lose by letting the Haass-O’Sullivan Document sit?

It was always going to be difficult. Outstanding issues from our troubled past, together with the issues of parades, protests and flags, have been sitting in the political wings while across society people worked around them to build a stronger community. But in the sitting they have become a burden and that was why the First and Deputy First Ministers invited Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan to facilitate a process amongst the panel of parties. I, probably like most others, found myself both hoping that something would come of it and despairing if we would ever find our way through it.

At first I thought the past would be the most challenging of all three areas. Parades and flags are symptoms of a deeper problem and often treating symptoms is much easier than treating cause. As it became clear there was an impasse on the flags issue I became more hopeful that the cause would be dealt with and for a while it seemed that would be possible. All the parties have now taken a position on the paper and I find myself similarly hopeful and despairing. I don’t want to give up yet. I don’t think it would be good to give up yet.

So what would we lose if the process is stalled for a while?

The process is part of the Together Building United Community strategy which itself builds on the Shared Future and Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategies. The fact that a shared future strategy has had to morph three times already would suggest that it hasn’t sat easily into the divisions that persist. The first loss, then, is to the ambition of a more shared, united community, built on the pillars of equality, human rights, parity of esteem and normalisation. None of this is easy to navigate in the context of concrete issues and yet without a commitment to resolution we lose the momentum towards a new society that constructs new dynamics and relationships which resist the recurrence of the Troubles.
There are those who complain that the police and the army are too much in the dock these days. Inquiries run against them, there is a momentum for careful scrutiny of the past and the result is a daily reliving of the past. Those who complain want all of this to stop. Their voices are heard alongside the voices of those who believe uncovering the truth of the past is essential. Whether that be in an examination of the various narratives of the past, or in the search for justice and truth, there is a desire for the things of the past to become known. Both of these groups of people find themselves frustrated by the Haass-O’Sullivan process. Neither of them will get their desire. On the one hand, there is no alternative mechanism to deal with the leakage of scrutiny into our everyday lives. On the other hand, there is no means of examining what happened in the past so that narratives can be seen and heard and given thought. The loss, then, is across the board.
Add to that the difficulties units for dealing with outstanding cases are facing – HET & PONI. Complaints come from across the community about the lack of focus and resources, the lack of outcomes and the way in which the tasks are carried forward, together with concern about investigative powers, or lack of them. Justice is slow, if at all. Truth is hidden and there seems little willingness to reveal it. International standards relating to justice and truth demand more than this, as do those whose expressed need is to see justice being done, or to hear truth spoken, or both. Investigators and examiners of the unresolved cases can hardly feel good about themselves. Those who are seeking some reparation through truth and justice face the loss of a process which will deliver something. Inevitably no process can deliver everything to everyone but unless investigations and opportunities for truth recovery are provided then there is a loss of reparation.
The Parades Commission has probably always been contentious. From the days of the North Report it was a tip-toe exercise to craft a process that would address the competing rights and identities involved in parading and protesting. There have now been three opportunities to redesign the Parades Commission and this third attempt has not made it over the line either, at least not as yet. Three attempts is a loss in itself.
Flags, symbols of culture and identity, have proven intractable enough to require a process all of their own. The very intractability of the issue suggests that further work needs done and, in the meantime, we exist in the quagmire of competition for the acceptance of diverse identities and diverse needs to declare them. The lack of commitment to a way forward is a loss for it leaves us in the quagmire.
Above all the lack of agreement on a way forward just leaves us hanging. No resolution will be fully acceptable to anyone. But at least a planned way forward lets people know where they are. Right now no one is sure where they are and that wilderness feeling pervades our lives and the old dynamics of dissension take hold, pulling us in different directions and away from the hope of a truly shared future in which diversity can be cherished.
If the process is stalled then, in my view, there are losses for everyone.


On the far side of revenge: Forthspring 5 Decades Project




 It was a privilege to be part of launching the 5 Decades Project in Belfast City Hall today. Nearly 150 people took part in the storytelling project through which they found that they had more in common than they ever thought. 

Local projects like this have significance for the individuals involved. The risks they take in getting involved in the first place are significant but, as the participants bear witness, the rewards are far greater than the risks. People are able to move from a watch your back outlook on life which turns them in circles, going nowhere and inhibiting vision, to a got your back outlook. It means they begin to understand each other, to look out for each other, to express how the other feels. That makes a significant difference locally. It also makes a difference to society. All across Northern Ireland there are projects like this that, in their own small way, are changing the world.
Maya Angelou said:

Those of us who submitted or surrendered our ideas and dreams and identities to the ‘leaders’ must take back our rights, our identities, our responsibilities.

Through projects like this people take back any surrendering of their ideas, dreams, or identities and they take hold of their responsibilities to make a better world, society and locality. Despite a sometimes turbulent history they face the challenges in a way which is inspirational. Participants in this project encourage leaders and others to learn to make that same shift from watch your back to got your back.
All of this has a a two-fold ambition. Firstly to give participants the chance to have their life story heard and secondly to bear witness to the impacts of violence and division on ordinary lives so that people are inspired to resist ever returning to violence and to apply themselves to the work of breaking down that which divides us. They, as Seamus Heaney put it:

… hope for a great sea change
On the far side of revenge.

In his poem The Road Not Taken Robert Frost reminds us that there is always an easy and well-worn road to travel and there is always a less-worn and more challenging road to travel. In organising and participating in this project ordinary people have followed the road less taken and that, as Frost has it, has made all the difference. Frost concludes his poem with these words:

Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The 5 Decades Exhibition can be viewed at Belfast City Hall



Thanks to the leaders of the Church of Ireland, Roman Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian churches who have been working to release this statement for some days. I was unaware of their endeavour when I posted my blog yesterday.

Church leaders are encouraging politicians to sustain the momentum and energy generated by the Haass talks.

In a joint statement from the leaders of the Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches together with the Irish Council of Churches they applaud the ‘strenuous and sincere efforts put in by all involved in seeking to find solutions to some of the most contentious issues we face’.

They also recognise the ‘profoundly challenging’ nature of the issues to be addressed but firmly believe that ‘a peaceful and reconciled society is possible’.

The church leaders say that that while the deadline for the Haass negotiations may have passed, the responsibility to work for the common good remains and they encourage the Executive ‘to keep going with the work that has begun so that an acceptable process may be developed’.

The leaders also make clear that the responsibility does not only lie with political leaders but is shared by every individual. ‘As Christians we emphasise the value of building trust, in a spirit of generosity and forgiveness. We encourage every member of our community, church and parishes to be instruments of reconciliation and peace-building’.

The full statement is as follows:

As Church leaders we encourage politicians to sustain the momentum and energy generated by the talks of the Panel of Parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, chaired and facilitated by Dr Richard Haass and his team. Significant work has been completed in recent months and we acknowledge the strenuous and sincere efforts put in by all involved in seeking to find solutions to some of the most contentious issues we face. This is an important time for our society; the momentum for building peace should not be lost. We are aware of the focus and effort that the forthcoming elections will require of our politicians but encourage all within the Executive to keep going with the work that has begun so that an acceptable process may be developed.

We firmly believe that a peaceful and reconciled society is possible. Responsibility for building peace and the development of mutual respect and tolerance in our society does not lie with our political leaders alone, but is shared by every individual. As Christians we emphasise the value of building trust, in a spirit of generosity and forgiveness. We encourage every member of our community, church and parishes to be instruments of reconciliation and peace-building. The Christian call to reconciliation, inspired by the example and sacrifice of Christ, is one that calls us to reach out to others in a spirit of understanding, seeking to be sensitive to their concerns and recognising our need for one another.

We appreciate that the issues addressed in the Haass process are profoundly challenging. While recognising the significance many in our community attribute to issues of culture and identity, we affirm that for all Christians their primary loyalty is to the Lord Jesus Christ and his Kingdom. We continue to offer support to the many who carry deep and genuine hurts from the past and commit ourselves to continually strive together to address issues arising from the need to build a peaceful and reconciled society. We encourage all to do likewise. The deadline for the Haass negotiations may have passed but the responsibility to work for the common good remains.

Cardinal Seán Brady, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh
Most Rev Richard Clarke, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh
Rt Rev Dr Rob Craig, Presbyterian Moderator
Rev Dr Heather Morris, Methodist President
Rev Fr Godfrey O’Donnell, President of the Irish Council of Churches

Spokespersons for the Church Leaders

The Church leaders have nominated the following as spokespersons:
Methodist President, Rev Dr Heather Morris. Contact through Methodist Press Office, Rev Roy Cooper Tel: 077 1094 5104

Bishop John McAreavey (in the absence of Cardinal Brady who is away). Contact through Diocesan Office Tel: 028 3026 2444


And the churches said…..?

I am frustrated with the public debate. I am looking for something that won’t go over and over the same issues in ever decreasing circles of blame. These days I’m an ordinary, two-bit Presbyterian minister. I don’t convene any committees and I don’t sit on any boards. I’ve done my time and I know the difficulties. As an ordinary Presbyterian I want to hear what the churches have to say about the Haass & O’Sullivan talks. Actually I wanted to hear from the churches before we got to draft 7. I want to hear about Twaddell, Welfare Reform, education, food banks, employment, the future of healthcare provision, racist attacks. 

When I try to recall the voice of the churches in the public domain the predominant memories are of rampaging earnestness when it comes to sexuality or ‘gay’ blood. I want to hear about so much more. I want to know that my denomination and other denominations are struggling with what makes Talkback or Nolan or UTV Live. I want to hear a voice into the public debate, not necessarily offering answers but at least setting out issues and the difficulties in resolving them.
Don’t get me wrong – I hear some very strong individual voices from church people, for example the Methodist President. I am grateful to them for they bubble a debate among a significant community of people who vote or don’t vote, who have opinions and who are looking for a way through the various impasses that confront our society. A big, ‘thank you!’
As for the challenges, each denomination contains a cross-section of society. So to speak with one view is difficult. All the voices need to be recognised. And is that any different from a political party? All political parties are driven by their electorate which will, at least from time to time, have a variety of opinions. But churches aren’t political parties. Each church has to take account of the pastoral needs of its members and to represent those voices as best they can. But churches are also called to be, as I read the Bible, makers of peace, places where people pray for friend and enemy alike. Churches are tasked with seeking the peace of every City. Does that not make for some difference? Does it not mean that churches can speak with a voice that is both pastoral and energetic with vision?
Or is it the case that these days churches are on their knees praying – Dear God, we have a problem? We do have a problem. It would be good to admit that at least. We have a problem with the diverse voices that make up our society and our denominations, voices that can’t harmonise for a way forward. We have a problem with diverse needs that cannot all be met. We have a problem with a public debate that prefers to take a pop at others and even sink into personal attack rather than unravel the issues. We have a problem in the lack of common will and purpose to address issues and find a way forward. We seem to have a problem with truth at more than one level, not just in relation to the past. Maybe, at best, we can truthfully say that we have a problem and we don’t quite know how to get through it.
Could common purpose be found in the willingness to find a way through, to build peace with humility, compassion and sorrow for what we cannot do? Is that the most honest position to take? And if it is, can churches, denominations, at least say so? More worryingly, would it be more truthful to say that we don’t want to find a way through? We just have to live with what we’ve got.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
James 3:17-18


The Post-Haass Glow?

The New Year has begun without the post-Haass glow. Haass, O’Sullivan and their team have returned home and publication of the proposals has provided the opportunity for blame to begin. Reading the proposals one can hear the voices of politicians, each voice disturbed by different aspects of the document. No glow, just blame.
For what it’s worth I don’t think anyone is to blame any more than anyone else. It was a joint enterprise. Everyone in the negotiations shared equal responsibility for finding agreement and when discordant notes were sounded it was the responsibility of others to understand what they meant. Each was responsible for the other and each was responsible for addressing the concerns expressed by the others. Who did that best or who continued with the old conflicts is of little consequence. The outstanding matters of the past remain outstanding and difficulties about parades and flags are built on those outstanding matters.
What if times for approaching difficulties were regularly built into the peace-building process?
What if there was regular, pre-agreed time set aside before any of the issues that would be part of the conversations were identified?
Would that assist in reaching agreement?
Would that help a post-conflict society to move to a better peace?
I suggest that pre-agreed times are essential in the processes required to make and embed peace across a society. If they are pre-agreed then discussions are not about impasses or conflicts but about the shared enterprise of making peace. I also suggest that these pre-agreed times would have a character about them different from normal party political engagement. The dynamics of those pauses for thought and discussion would be one of solving problems and not of surmounting obstacles. The commitment to the common purpose of making a better peace would be evident in the manner in which those discussions take place and the common goal would be to use the time well, for good and clear outcomes.
But we don’t have those times. We wait until we don’t know what to do any more and, when things get bad enough, we finally get to the issues.
Perhaps this isn’t all bad. It was clear that none of the parties had properly prepared their constituencies for the sacrifices needed for agreements to be reached. Nor was there enough public leadership on those compromise matters. No party leadership persuaded the public that they were reaching agreement for good reason but every party leadership has stepped onto the public stage to explain how well they have done for their own constituency. They now have an opportunity to considered public debate and give significant leadership. They will not be able to do that alone. A strong civic voice is called for, speaking into the controversy from a different place which is impacted by the lack of agreement. We also need a society willing to move towards reconciliation for the sake of a future in which the past does not recur. Peace-making is a common task with the common ambition of resisting a past in which society sunk into violence which made victims and survivors and embittered and betrayed many.
I like what the Tanaiste, Eamonn Gilmore, had to say:

This is not a step back but rather a step not yet taken. That step forward will have to be taken because it is right and necessary and because people across society are demanding it.

The problem is that nothing stands still. Stand still and you’re history. Hopefully the opportunity for making a better and more resilient peace has not been consigned to history.