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21 February 2014

Cyclists, racists and shared space

Cyclists, racists and shared space

Photo credit: Ronan Magee via Creative Commons

The Giro d'Italia is coming to Northern Ireland in May. This cycle race is one of the 'Grand Tours' second only in size to the Tour de France. This year is only the eleventh time the cycle race has started outside of Italy in it's ninety-seven year history. The first leg starts with a short time trial on 9 May at Titanic Belfast, with competitors racing through the Stormont estate before finishing at the front of the City Hall. Day two's route runs along part of the stunning Antrim coast and day three takes the competitors out of Northern Ireland through the rolling countryside of South Armagh.

It is estimated that over 800 million people around the world will follow the event on TV with millions more engaging through social media. With the eyes of the world looking on, legitimate questions have been raised about what viewers will see along the routes. There have been murmurings of agreements to take down election posters for the three days of the race but it was the call to remove paramilitary murals and flags along the route in Belfast that catapulted this from a great sports story to a shameful case of racist abuse.

Some of the calls to remove flags and paramilitary murals came from Anna Lo, the only ethnic minority MLA in Northern Ireland. For speaking out on this issue she received disgraceful racist abuse and threats on social media. Wholesale condemnation of the abuse followed and there was a welcome scramble from all quarters of politics and the general public to show unwavering support for Ms Lo (#istandwithanna).

So what connection does this local news story have to PQ, broader public policy and following Jesus in the public square?

Let me suggest it poses some questions which are relevant more broadly to Western culture today. Should the public square be governed? If so, how and by whom? At a time when offensive social media posts in Northern Ireland can be read seconds later in South Korea or Mexico, how should different international laws and cultural values interplay? How does this fit in a plural post-modern culture, where the concept of absolute truth is said to be dead? Is it acceptable to declare that some comments and views are absolutely unacceptable, like racism?

More locally, in the case of physical public and private spaces in Northern Ireland, it raises the issue again of how we deal with paramilitary murals and flags? Arlene Foster of the DUP commented: "Paramilitary murals? Of course they should be taken down – they should never have gone up."Most of Northern Ireland's citizens agree, but which arm of Government Department, police or local council will actually take responsibility and make this happen? What about those individuals or communities who want their murals to remain? How do we balance personal freedom to display flags and symbols on private property with wider social concerns?

This story raises a huge number of questions but they can be summed up in this one – how should we manage our shared spaces? This will be one of the defining issues for policymakers and culture-shapers in the years ahead.

Tom Wright states that "the whole point of Christianity is that is offers a story which is the story of the whole world. It is public truth." Christians have a coherent framework by which to make sense of the world. Our views about the value and dignity of each person come from our belief in a Creator, in whose image we are made. Our views about justice, right and wrong come from a holy God who sets apart good and evil and who will one day judge the earth. Our views on love and mercy, compassion, truth and freedom come from Him who authored all of these characteristics and concepts. Our experience of relationship, forgiveness and grace transforms our identity and relationships with those around us. As Christians, we approach every issue, whether of flags, paramilitaries or racism from a coherent biblical worldview.

When it comes to shared spaces, whether physical or virtual, we need to ask questions of the prevailing worldviews at play. Without understanding where people are coming from or where they are seeking to go the public square becomes an extremely messy and confused place. The result is that society reacts to the most urgent moral panic, loudest screaming voice or economic emergency without any real debate on our shared values and vision.

Coming back to the presenting issue of flags and paramilitary murals, Peter Osborne of the Community Relations Council notes: "it reminds me of a dysfunctional family who want to hide their behaviours when visitors come calling." Until these issues, and the wider complexities of our shared spaces are approached honestly and comprehensively, unresolved tension will continue to resurface at the most inopportune times and over the most innocent of events – like a cycle race.