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19 April 2012

24 hours

24 hours

Twenty-four hours is a long time in politics. On Saturday, 31 March, Mike Nesbitt was elected as the new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. He took over a party that was revealed to be the least influential party in government, according to a recent survey. Within a day of his appointment, Mr Nesbitt kicked the proverbial hornet’s nest when he commented that he would like to be adopted by a family living in an area of social deprivation for 24 hours.

Before you stop reading, or perhaps start complaining, this is not a critique of Mike Nesbitt nor the Ulster Unionist Party. Mr Nesbitt’s words simply sowed some seeds for consideration.

Reaction to the comments from political rivals was swift and sharp. The idea was dismissed as smacking of “crassness and condescension” by Simon Hamilton of the Democratic Unionist Party and “patronising and insulting” by Gerry Carroll of People before Profit. So a political stunt to reclaim some influence among a disillusioned electorate? Or a genuine desire to gain a better insight into the daily lives of those living in these areas? If nothing else, the controversy has raised the question of how we actually engage with deprivation politically in Northern Ireland. Are we actually perpetuating a stigma and sense of low esteem by labelling areas as ‘socially deprived’?

It’s about seven miles from the least deprived area in Northern Ireland (Wallace Park, Lisburn) to the most deprived area (Whiterock, Belfast). In the Wallace Park Ward eight per cent of children are born to unmarried mothers. In Whiterock this rises to over 90 per cent.  This is not a moral judgement, but a reality across a distance of less than 10 miles. The average age at death in Wallace Park is 85 compared to 78 in Whiterock - that’s seven years difference within seven miles. The issues and cycles that lead to areas becoming socially deprived are historically complex and emotive. In Northern Ireland correlations can clearly be seen between areas most impacted by the troubles and social deprivation. In these areas the dividends of the peace process are scarce. Even when paramilitaries have gone, crime, unemployment, family breakdown, ill health and disengagement remain.

Twenty four hours. Days can merge into months without us noticing and yet at the same time, so to speak, our lives can be changed dramatically by events that take little more than a second. A sudden event or a slow steady decline; both can lead to lives that are deprived of love, health, peace or wellbeing. Perhaps it was the fact that Mr Nesbitt retained the ability to choose when his experience of deprivation would begin and end that provoked such strong reaction. Most people who live in a state of deprivation do not choose to do so. Many do not choose to begin living in a socially deprived area, nor can they choose to leave tomorrow.

Going back to the start, twenty four hours in politics is a long time. Not long enough for the issues of social deprivation to be resolved – but enough for a seed to be planted. Jesus said: “If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, move from here to there, and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20-21). It’s easy to lose sight of our faith when we see a mountain of urgent and chronic need around us. Faith in Jesus Christ and his message of transformation provides perspective, hope and power to change. How often we look to politicians for answers to problems that they can never solve.
Mr Nesbitt should be commended at least for his willingness to go and to see first-hand what it’s like to live in an area that many policymakers only know through statistics. We can’t all uproot to another area, even for 24 hours, but today how are we incarnationally living out the life-changing message of Jesus where we find ourselves?