20 December 2012
In last month's PQ I wrote about the need for a paradigm shift away from the default 'them and us' mentality in Northern Ireland. I had no prophetic prompting, that I'm aware of, but events since then have shown just how close to the surface 'them and us' lies and how damaging it can be.
On 3 December, Belfast City Council voted to change the flying of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall from 365 days a year to around 17 designated days. This was in response to an equality impact assessment, the roots of which lie in the Good Friday Agreement. The results of the flag vote have been profound.
Legitimate protests have been overshadowed by illegal actions. It has been claimed that democracy and the rule of law has been under attack. Difficult and loaded political questions have been asked about the timing of the council debate, flyers targeting loyalist areas and whether the response from Westminister would have been different if this happened in Brighton not Belfast.
The cost has been personal, to individuals, their children, families and friends. There has been violence, intimidation, vandalism, arson, road blocks, the attempted murders of police officers and death threats issued against councillors, MPs and MLAs. The cost has also been unavoidably public - news footage has been beamed around the world that certainly won't be promoted by the Tourist board.
There have been many responses. Most have unequivocally condemned the violence. Many calls have been issued – for the flag to be reinstated, for a temporary end to the protests and for an immediate end to the violence. One of the loudest calls has been for leadership and in response a Unionist Forum has been announced by the leaders of the two largest unionist parties. The forum states: "All participants will share the core values of support for the maintenance of the Union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, non-sectarianism, commitment to a shared future and commitment to the successful operation of devolution in Northern Ireland."
These constitutional aims are entirely legitimate and it is very encouraging to see specific commitments to peace, democracy, non-sectarianism and shared future. The present circumstances are extremely difficult and Unionist leaders seem to be making efforts to listen to voices who are clearly feeling marginalised and disadvantaged. Ironically given the name, unionism has historically been very fractured. So there is certainly some wisdom in trying to find common voice on one side of the house before dealing with the other, especially given that most of the unrest has been on the Protestant Unionist Loyalist (PUL) side.
However there had been assurances locally that this was the week that the Cohesion Sharing and Integration (CSI) document was due to be published. This document is due to set some of the detail and practicalities of a shared future here. Now clearly current events have changed the political landscape and issues of security must take precedence. But it's ironic that in a week where we were due to consider our shared future together the focus is squarely back to the entrenchment of them and us.
Them and us thinking is not unique to Northern Ireland, we're all guilty of it everyday. It's much easier to stick with 'us' than to venture into 'them' territory, especially in times of perceived threat. 'Us' thinking requires no effort, it's inherent, we like others like 'us'. Putting 'them' before 'us' is not the natural thing to do. But here's where following Jesus gets us into trouble again…. I think the King James Version puts it best with these practical words: 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you.'
Using the words of this verse, there's no doubt some Christians on all sides will feel cursed, hated, despised, used and persecuted. Pray for responses that are loving, blessing, good and prayerful. I've written a lot about Kingdom identity in Northern Ireland lately and I'm not going to repeat it all again. But let's keep this perspective in mind in the days to come. Please also continue to pray, like the thousands who linked arms around city hall last week. No matter what your political persuasion please pray for those trying to stop violence and pursue peaceful aims. Please pray for wisdom for all of our leaders and for a marked step away from the strong temptation to return to the old safe-house of 'them and us' thinking.