Bethlehem Diary 1: Remembering the past isn’t enough to break down division

Day 1: Arrival in Tel Aviv

I was wondering what it would be like. It’s about 20 years since I was here. I remember the long drive from Tel Aviv airport all those years ago. Alongside the road there were relics of the Yom Kippur War – rusting tanks and the like. There to remind people of what war can do to people and to encourage a new peace, if I remember correctly, these relics stood out against the softer landscape of Israel. But not today. Today the drive from Tel Aviv, through Jerusalem and on to Bethlehem is contoured by walls. Crafted, architectured walls to keep the right people in the right place and the wrong people in the right place.
I found it staggering. I know walls, of course. You can’t live in Belfast and not know walls. But these walls cut through communities, cut through peoples lives, influence and dominate lives in a way that I haven’t seen before. It occurred to me, as I listened to the taxi driver, that when we attempt to ghettoize others we are ghettoising our own spirits too. Hemming people in, putting them where we know they will be, keeping them apart, puts them in a place from which we fear them. We fear the possibility of a day when they will burst from their ghettos and make us pay for what we have done. So the natural instinct has to be to further ghettoize them so they will not be a danger to us. Minds and spirits become cut off from each other and the human family is, both literally and emotionally, divided.
The rusting vehicles beside the road didn’t do their job. They were to serve as a reminder of what human beings can do each other. It was not enough. It is a stark warning. Unless something is done to remake relationships after violence then there will be return. Reminders of what is past are not enough to stem the bleed into inhumanity in the future. There has to be something else to resist the human tendency to protect self by dominating, oppressing or victimising others. The work is deep and slow but essential.
The Biblical teaching about Christ as the well-breaker screams into play. Here is a message about peace between peoples but also of peace for all people, whether they be believers of not. It is not enough for Christian people to stand with each other. Christian people, sharing the ministry of Jesus Christ, have everyone in view.

Christ has made peace between Jews and Gentiles, and he has united us by breaking down the wall of hatred that separated us. Christ gave his own body 15 to destroy the Law of Moses with all its rules and commands. He even brought Jews and Gentiles together as though we were only one person, when he united us in peace. 16 On the cross Christ did away with our hatred for each other. He also made peace between us and God by uniting Jews and Gentiles in one body. 17 Christ came and preached peace to you Gentiles, who were far from God, and peace to us Jews, who were near God. 18 And because of Christ, all of us can come to the Father by the same Spirit. Ephesians 2 14-18

While Christians may and should view themselves as one in Christ we also face the calling to preach peace to all, and that means living peace with and for all. Walls separate and build up hatred. They destroy human community and undignify both the builder and the enclosed. The dynamics of human relationships have to be considered within the political arrangements we make, supposedly to sustain us. If they are not then the walls which divide become the walls by which we pressure cooker difference to the point of explosion.
I missed those rusty tanks by the road. They had so much to say about remembering how not to be with each other. The walls, beautifully architectured and all as they are, spoke of hopelessness and separation and the affront to human dignity on both sides. As I write there is trouble in the street outside the hotel – tear gas, soldiers in a stand off, young men throwing stones, loud music to raise the temperature. The walls aren’t doing the job. Human dignity, persisting in the quality of human relationships, needs to take centre stage.


Disorientated and looking for direction: the impact of the news about OTR arrangements

In his work on the Psalms Walter Brueggemann writes of three kinds of Psalm: Psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. Psalm 22 is one of those expressing disorientation:

I have no more strength
 than a few drops of water.
All my bones are out of joint;
 my heart is like melted wax.
My strength has dried up
 like a broken clay pot,
 and my tongue sticks
 to the roof of my mouth.
 You, God, have left me
 to die in the dirt. Psalm 22 vv14-15

I imagine that this is how many feel with the ongoing news about the arrangements regarding ‘on the runs.’ The sad fact is that there has been a long history to this beginning maybe as early as 1995 and continuing onwards at least from 2000 when news reports appeared. Somehow the public debate missed it. The 2005 Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill brought the debate to light and perhaps the rejection of the Bill put it from our minds. No one asked what would happen with the OTRs when the Bill was rejected. No one followed up on the news reports. No one picked up on the paragraphs in the report of the Consultative Group on Dealing with the Past. There are many questions, human questions, leadership questions, legal questions and many more.
This doesn’t feel clean. Truth be told there have been a lot of things both coming up to and after the Belfast Good Friday Agreement that haven’t felt clean but for many of us the price for peace was worth paying. At this juncture, though, things feel less clean than they did before because we wonder what else was going on. Peter Hain has spoken about the deals that were done with the DUP which others didn’t like. He mentioned the appointment of a victims representative. I want to know – were there more and what were they? How many side deals were done, with whom were they done and why were they done?
There are victims and survivors who are reeling from the news and well they might be. Over the last months politicians, and others too, have spoken of their centrality in dealing with the past. They have been invited, time and again, to bring forward what they want to see done and they have risen to the challenge. No one thought to outline the limits to what is possible whether it be in regard to truth or justice. No one thought to say to them that they were listening as best they could but before even they started into responding there were restrictions because of what has already transpired in dealing with the past. No wonder they are reeling. No wonder they are angry and hurt, many of them immobilised by what has happened. As a society we at least owe them an expression of deep remorse for our sins of omission for we omitted to tell them that deals had already been done without their knowledge.
I wonder to myself what the politicians were doing. In particular I wonder what the Unionist politicians were doing. Many across middle Unionism believe that it is time to stop delving into the past. Given the OTR arrangements and the Weston Park discussions would it not have been wise to bag this and to ask for more? To ask for the lifting of the weight of potential prosecutions from police and soldiers too? To ask that Inquiries be restricted and that an equitable release from the past be given across the board? It would have been short of what many want but it might at least have been more fair and we might not be where we are today.
I wonder to myself what the OTRs are feeling and what their families are feeling. The act of mercy they received must feel in danger and families who were separated from their loved ones are probably in crisis too, reliving the agonies of the years apart. I know some of the OTRs. I have heard one speak out against dissident activity, calling for a stable peace. I have watched another work tirelessly for peace. That is something.
I wonder what of truth now. Where will it come from and where does it sit? Are there limits to truth that we need to speak of in the legal sense and are there limits we need to speak of in the human sense? I have wondered this a lot over the last few weeks since an event I attended when I heard a former IRA volunteer speak of his recognition of the loss of human life in a bombing in which he was involved. But he was clear that he believed in what he did while at the same time recognising the loss. If that is the truth we are going to get and all the truth we are going to get, do we really want it?
I wonder to myself about justice. These letters the OTRs received didn’t give them immunity but told them they were not being pursued due to lack of evidence. What chance is there of new evidence across the many open cases that remain? And if that is seriously limited then how do we say that, how do we tell it to those who are holding out for justice?
I wonder to myself about the heated debates regarding limited immunity. I wonder if there is a real recognition of the existing immunity arrangements that are already in place. I wonder if we realise that we have already accepted limited immunity.
I wonder if it is possible to sit down and honestly scope out the landscape of what has been done about the past, dirty and all as it might be, so that we can clean up our act for going forward. I don’t believe it is possible to clean up a dirty war with moral purity. But I do believe that we should aim to raise the bar with every action so that we reach a more healthy and honest and upright society in which relationships can be real and trusting. We won’t do that without recognising what we have allowed to pass in the process of making peace, things we wouldn’t normally allow to pass.
I can understand how this got missed. I have found myself in difficult times turning my head and saying – do what you have to do, just do it quickly. Perhaps that’s something of what happened. If it is then we need to say it because there are lives that are like broken clay pots. There is a stink to what has happened. It’s time for us to face our disgust at what’s been done, and perhaps disgust at ourselves too for being complicit. Lives can’t be rebuilt without it.
There is cross that moves around the local churches in my area. It is called the Cavehill Cross. It is made from the broken wood left after the bombing of the Cavehill shops on Bloody Friday, 21st June 1972. Twenty six bombs exploded in the space of eighty minutes killing 11 people and injuring 130. At the Cavehill shops 14-year-old Stephen Parker was killed. His father, a local minister, wanted the cross made and moved around the churches to remember Stephen and to remember what we have done to each other. The cross represents the pain of so many from across the community, ordinary people, some with good intent and some intent on taking the lives of others. Their families are left bearing the cost of the troubles. Violence corrupts and drives us to dehumanise each other so that we are all brutalised. Violence takes on its own life and takes us over to the degree that we lose touch with the real humanity by which we live well together, in respect and with tolerance and hope. Violence has far reaching impacts and we should object to it:

I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent. Mahatma Gandhi

There are those who are suffering more than most tonight. They know that the evil violence does is permanent. They are suffering with the memory of a blast, a shot, an injury, a loss. We cannot make it right for them. We cannot give them back lost loved ones, lost limbs or lost hopes and dreams. We cannot even give them all that they are asking for. But we can do better. Making sure we attend to the way in which we do business so that we make relationships across the community to ensure that what happened in the past will never happen again is a starting point. We should address all our energy to that.
If only it were different. But it isn’t. In the brokenness of many lives this time is savage and disordered. In every disorientation there is the opportunity for reorientation, painful and difficult as that may be. At the very least this should be a time to look together for that reorientation of principle and substance that make the difference and cleans up the stink, raising the bar once and for all.

Do you want to live
 and enjoy a long life?

Then don’t say cruel things
 and don’t tell lies.

Do good instead of evil
 and try to live at peace. Psalm 34 vv12-14



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.


Conflicts, problems and the future

How we approach the issues that confront us will determine the outcome. Whether it be flags, parades, dealing with the past or one of the many other contested issues if we approach these matters as sites of conflict then we are not likely to get very far. Contested matters have long been thought of as sites of the conflict telling us that the troubles of the past are not gone. The old allegiances live on in every unresolved issue and the problem confronting Drs Haass and O’Sullivan present an opportunity to reach only measured compromise. 

But what if we were to change the approach?

What if, across the board, political and civic leaders, members of civil society, victims and survivors, those aligned with ‘State forces’, former paramilitaries, everyone, were to decide that we have a problem to be solved?

The trouble is that we have got stuck. If we come to our difficulties hoping to win a conflict then we are likely to remain stuck.
If we were to agree that we genuinely don’t want to return to the old conflicts and were to focus on the future, then we can begin to approach the outstanding matters from the past as a problem to be solved – a common problem. The common problem is that the outstanding matters from the past are stalling the building of a shared, equitable, more reconciled future. Common willingness to address a common problem allows us to come to the issues with the possibility of it being in everyone’s interests to resolve matters is. No one is granted a veto and everyone is granted possibility.
To approach the situation as a common problem is to address ourselves to the painstaking task of embedding a more peaceful future in which what happened in the past is less likely to happen all over again. It is also a way of lessening the feeling many have that they will not be considered. This problem belongs to everyone and when laid out in all its aspects will see what matters to everyone. But with this common problem the best that can be done will be done, for everyone will apply themselves to resolution rather than to winning or protecting themselves.
In a problem solving approach the morality of what is done is upheld. It is morally right to apply ourselves to doing what we can to provide a society in which everyone can feel they have a part and are given the respect and consideration they deserve, whether that be the opportunity for employment or the opportunity of health services and recognition of injury, to name but two. It is morally right to build a society which enables rather than traps, a society driven by care for the vulnerable and the opportunity for everyone to achieve their potential. That morality is shackled when individuals and groups are focussed only on themselves, setting up a conflict dynamic. A problem solving approach also removes the chance for each to use the other as excuse or even veto on the process of moving away from conflict. The debate becomes focussed on what serves us all best rather than on what others permit or do not permit us to do.
Will everything turn out perfectly if a problem solving approach is adopted? That is unlikely. We have lived through a depth of turmoil so dark and murky that categories of perfection are unlikely to apply for a very long time to come. It takes a while to ‘clean up our act’. In my view we have to be honest about that. What a problem solving approach offers is the opportunity for everyone to play their part in making the future that we persistently talk about – a future in which we are not dominated or threatened by the past but making a future in which our children and our children’s children will have no fear of violence, terror, domination, sectarianism and all the ensuing implications.