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.