16 May 2013
Singing from the same hymn sheet?
Last week the Northern Ireland Executive finally began the process of re-launching the long awaited for and newly re-branded shared future initiative. The full document entitled Together: Building a United Community is to be published within two weeks. This teaser included, among other proposals, a youth programme creating 10,000 one-year placements, 100 shared summer schools, the removal of all peace walls and an all-party group to consider other contentious issues such as flags and parades.
Moving forward this is one of the most important documents coming out of the Executive so it 's important that it's right. Driving after a shared future when communities are still divided is never going to be easy so no one expected this to be done over night. However, having been first launched back in 2010 it has gone through a series of facelifts and political wrangling to get to this point.
Unfortunately, this 'point' doesn't seem to be significantly different than back in 2010, and if anything tensions have heightened during the interim. Within 24 hours of last week's re-launch the political and relational fallout was more than evident. It emerged that not all parties and members of the Executive had been given the opportunity to contribute to, or been informed of, this document. Ironically one of the key facets that the First and Deputy First Ministers have been keen to highlight within this document is the importance of good relations. Which does beg the question: how good are relations within the Executive?
To be fair, Northern Ireland has come a long way in the 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement was reached. Our political leaders have been central to driving this progress, for which we commend and thank them. Sacrifices were made on all sides and the big picture of peace and prosperity was prioritised. However, in recent months, particularly following the uproar around parades and flags, this vision has been dropped and a political stalemate seems to have ensued with relationships souring. Frustration is being felt on many sides as a result, amongst businesses regarding corporation tax, amongst teachers with the continued impasse about the future of education and amongst parents around issues like childcare. This frustration is being echoed in London as well, with Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers warning last month that substantial aid could be withheld if progress isn't made on a shared future.
This week in the Assembly, First Minister Peter Robinson further outlined the shared future initiative. When asked about the lack of consultation among the whole Executive he accused some of his fellow Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) of being "a tribe of Jeremiahs who infest the political process". This biblical reference seems a strange analogy to use as Jeremiah warned the people of God's truths and called the people of Israel to repentance. Mr Robinson went on to say there was, "foot dragging, whinging, stalling and posturing" when it came to the shared future of Northern Ireland. Not exactly the type of language to encourage positive participation.
While we welcome moves from the Executive in the direction of a shared future, surely they know that by modelling good relations, or not as the case may be, they set the tone for public discourse and action. Comments such as have been aired in the Assembly and media this week only detract from good relations, further entrenching division. As Christians we believe in good relationships. We believe relationships are central to everything in fact. At the centre of the universe is a relationship – God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit and we are made in this image to be in relationship with Him and each other. Jesus told us how to model good relations in the Sermon on the Mount – he presented us with a radical relationships manifesto where we love our enemies and forgive on a daily basis.
This commitment to good relations is something that the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland has been lobbying Stormont about. We have called for MLAs to treat each other with dignity and respect, to be able to participate in healthy debates and disagreements, but to disagree well. When we see our leaders, some from fundamentally different communities and backgrounds, working together and putting the progress of Northern Ireland ahead of party politics our community relationships improve, our society moves forward and our politics works. Essentially, the more our politicians model Jesus, wittingly or not, the better the effect will be for everyone in society.
Paul Meneely, advocacy researcher, Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland