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20 September 2013

The hope of Haass

The hope of Haass

Castlederg, Kenneth Allen via Creative Commons.

The beautiful weather was almost unprecedented in recent memory this summer across Northern Ireland. The bloody violence was not.

Again, ugly pictures of our beautiful homeland made headlines around the world. The flags riots in January, the naming of a child's play-park after an IRA hunger striker, Ardoyne, Belfast city centre riots, Castlederg, the Maze peace centre. These confrontations, some physical, all political, followed each other and blended into a dangerous and perfect storm.

However, throughout our long summer there was always the hope of Haass. Richard Haass, former US special envoy finally arrived in Belfast this week. He, his team and this entire process carries an almost physical weight of expectations. They are charged with the difficult task of leading talks on three key issues, parades and protests, flags, symbols and emblems and, finally, the past. It's been a very busy first week and he has already met briefly with all the executive parties, the Orange Order, the business community and the leaders of the four largest Churches. The question for us; have Christians got anything to bring to the table?

The Troubles are centred around broken relationships and distorted identities. All of these issues; parades, protests, flags, symbols and emblems, are intimately connected to our identity and relationships. Jesus ushered in a new existence, God's Kingdom, where identity and relationships are restored and re-defined. Can we help people to realise that our identity is found in relationship with God and those around us, over and above our nationality, social status, politics orethnicity. We remind people that our identity and purpose are found in many other things including faith, family, community and work. We have a long term vision to improve wellbeing, rebuild relationships and support healthy families; re-orientating our identity around these signs of hope over and above contentious symbols.

Relationships are what life is all about. The foundation for any relationships must be love and grace, just like our relationship with God. Parades and protests must be approached from a place of relationship, community respect and community responsibility. If we want to see good relations and respect on our streets we need to see it modelled in public leadership. We can encourage the Government, civil and church leaders to lead by example. One practical way this could be achieved would be through a Good Relationships Commitment, a spirited agreement that goes beyond legal codes of conduct.

As Christians, we have an understanding of the importance of forgiveness, grace and repentance, which are central to the restoration of broken relationships. These principles are vital at an institutional level if we want to lead citizens on to a better future. These are heart changes that could be championed by the church and accompanied by very practical measures. For example, we could have a joint statement on the past which acknowledges the past, turns away from violent actions and harmful mindsets and shows remorse on both sides. Secondly, we need a new shared mindset, an attitude of forgiveness and grace to overcome difficulties which will arise.

We have something prophetic to say about the past. Forefathers are an important part of our collective community culture. The Bible talks a lot about forefathers and also the concept of the 'sins of the father' - Exodus 34:7, Ezekiel 18:19-20, John 9:1-3. The overall picture of these verses is of a dual reality, where the actions of one generation invariably impact those following. And yet, the picture is also of the grace of God as every new generation can choose a new redemptive way. We need to enable those in our communities to take up a new cause, to move away from the grievances of their forefathers, and determine what impact they want to have on future generations.

Our role as Christians is to faithfully tell our story of truth, love and hope. We are people of the book, deeply rooted in story. It is a story of movement from chaos to order, from emptiness to life, from bondage to freedom, from the desert to abundance, from exile to flourishing, from death to life and ultimately from heaven to earth. It is a story of hope for a despairing community.

This is not some magic panacea, a sudden resolution to all our troubles, but this is an important opportunity where we can voice our opinions to our leaders. Over the coming months Dr Haass will be meeting with many people from our community. He and his team have called for submissions from the public. These submissions can be on any or all of the issues to be discussed. They can range from a few lines of personal opinion to a professional report and statistic evidence. The deadline for submissions is 27 September 2013 and they can simply be emailed to info@panelofpartiesnie.com

Also do check out and perhaps add your voice to www.hopeandhistory.com