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27 February 2018

Hope in Northern Ireland: past, present and future

Hope in Northern Ireland:  past, present and future

Marking 20 years since the historic Good Friday Agreement, idea magazine spoke to Christians in Northern Ireland about how their hopes for their country have changed and been realised over the past 40 years. They say that the hope for the region lies in the gospel and its power to bring transformation and reconciliation. Heather Tomlinson reports.

It may seem a strange time to write about 'hope' in relation to Northern Ireland. Despite a period of relative stability, in recent months the dominant media narrative has turned much more negative. At the time of writing, the Northern Ireland Assembly has not sat in Stormont for months, and unionists and nationalists seem unable to resolve issues ranging from same sex marriage to the use of the Irish language in the region. Furthermore, issues related to Brexit and the Conservative Government's power sharing agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party is said to have threatened the peace brought by the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) those 20 years ago. At least, this is what the London-based media often tells us.

Yet those on the ground say that recent events are only exposing some of the underlying issues that have been buried for years, and need to be resolved for real progress to be made. For example, the question of sovereignty. The GFA helpfully 'parked' this debate, and any proposed constitutional change will depend upon a referendum. Another vital unresolved issue is the difficulties of investigating what happened to some of the victims of the Troubles and administering justice in a way that is fair to both 'sides'.

Most importantly, the spiritual wounds of the people still need to be tended to. Healing through forgiveness, reconciliation and the breaking down of sectarian barriers, is essential.

However complex and difficult the political and spiritual situation seems at present, it looks a lot more positive when stepping back and comparing it to the state of Northern Ireland 20 years ago in 1998, when the Agreement was signed. The present situation is even more hope-filled when compared to the 20 years prior in 1978, one of the worst years of the Troubles. 

In February of 1978, one of the most notorious IRA bombings of the troubles took place at the La Mon hotel. Twelve people died and dozens more were injured. Three IRA members were killed after a shoot-out with British soldiers. Violence and hatred seemed the norm, and reconciliation seemed impossible.

The scale of the strife is difficult to imagine now, even when looking at the shocking statistics. In a recent BBC NI programme, 'Fools for Christ', peacemaker Rev Ken Newell recalls returning to Belfast in 1975 to a city that was "reeling from violence and very polarised."

"It was like a bonfire of bitter emotions and it was consuming people," reported the Belfast Telegraph. "There was a sense of despair and a fear that you could feel. The churches were largely distant from each other, as were the communities and the politicians and, to some extent, the schools."

Few people at that time had hope that the violence could end. "In the early 70s, when things were at their worst, I remember hearing the eminent theologian Jurgen Moltmann speak," recalls veteran Methodist minister Rev Harold Good, who played a significant role in the peace process and ran the ground-breaking cross-community Corrymeela Community. "He said, "Never forget that Jesus takes the inevitability out of history!" I held to that throughout my ministry… especially when so many around me were saying nothing would ever change."

Yet change came. Little by little, steps were made towards a political agreement. In 1998, after two years of intensive talks, the peace process reached a climax, and the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast.

This was a time of real hope for the people who had suffered through the violence of the previous 30 years. "At the time of the GFA in 1998, I was expectant for a different world from that of my childhood," said Rev. Catherine Simpson, curate assistant in Seapatrick parish and co-developer of the Evangelical Alliance's new resource for Northern Irish churches, 'Be Reconciled'.  

"There was an air of expectancy that 20 years after the GFA, tribal politics would be a thing of the past. People were expectant that we would have a flourishing, rejuvenated society, a culture of hope, and a restored community."

This progress came with a cost however, particularly for the thousands of families who had been hurt or even destroyed by the Troubles. "There were some tough things to swallow in the GFA," recalls David Smyth, the public policy officer for Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland. "Terrorists and people convicted of murder were allowed out if they served two years. There were concessions on all sides. But, there was a feeling of hope, there was a feeling of peace having been won."

In the 20 years since 1998, huge progress has been made, despite practical difficulties and long periods when the Stormont Assembly has not sat, and the UK government taken charge. Yet many obstacles have been overcome, and many are optimistic. "Belfast today remains buoyant and hopeful, a bit of a Copenhagen kind of feel, it's an exciting place," says Smyth. "In the years since there has been investment and employment, and for most people it's quite a normal place to live. That's not lost on those who have come through the Troubles."

Political hopes have been realised beyond expectations and dreams. Whatever happens in the near future, the story of the last 40 years is that seemingly intractable issues can be lessened, if not resolved. However, the current uncertainty reflects an urgent need for a deeper healing. The boil of bitterness, hurt and sectarianism has not yet been fully lanced. This has to change if the peace of the last 20 years is to continue.

"The GFA was a really good agreement for a transitional period," said Smyth. "What needs to happen now is that the deeper issues are actually addressed. Previous attempts to deal with this are a sticking plaster over a cancer. The underlying issues are constitutional, as well as the need for forgiveness, repentance, truth, justice, also core issues of identity – Irishness and Britishness. We need to ask, how do we live well as neighbours, and who is our neighbour?"

This relational aspect of reconciliation is necessary for true healing to take place, and vital for addressing difficult issues such as the tradition of parades, which though mostly peaceful, can at times heighten community tensions. Legacy inquiries and reparation are piecemeal and contentious and as yet no agreed format for 'dealing with the past' has been properly instituted.

"My hope is that we take more joint risks together," said Smyth. "The GFA was a huge risk and came at a huge cost to many people. A cheap peace will not weather the vital but difficult paths which lie ahead as we look to address things like legacy inquiries, survivors and parades. To do this well and wisely, we need bold and gracious peace-makers who are prepared to prophetically live out in the present the future relationships they are working towards."

Rev Good said Northern Ireland still needs to look within and do the old-fashioned work of repentance and forgiveness. "We all need to be honest, to confess wherein we have failed, to acknowledge our part and the part of those within our community and history who have contributed to our brokenness," he said. "We need to truly understand the meaning of grace. And struggle with the meaning for us in our time and situation of that most difficult of words, 'forgiveness'".

Grassroots change is required. The media's focus of the last 40 years has usually been the politicians and the governmental apparatus, or the church leaders and the institutions, and their contribution or the barriers they produce to peace. But this ignores the real arena for change – the lives of the people on the ground. And every person can contribute, whatever the political situation, or the failings of the institutional Church. 

"While the [church] institutions may not have been in the vanguard of change there are many, many recorded and unrecorded stories of how individuals, clergy and lay, from all of our churches have made significant contributions to our political and social life," says Rev Good. "I sometimes think of how in situations of war, it is not always possible to move as a battalion, so there are stories of 'foot soldiers' who go into the difficult situations where the battalion chose not to go."

If or when the political process gets more difficult, again individuals and churches can make the choices necessary for long-term change. "The biggest contribution of the church was thousands of good neighbours," says Smyth. "Every day during the troubles the Church, a scattered body of believers was living in the midst of violence and crossing thresholds with the message of peace."

Such a message transcends the political process, and comes to the heart of the Christian message. "Northern Ireland simply needs gospel transformation, and the Church in Northern Ireland must give context to the gospel by playing its part in societal healing," says Rev Simpson. "In a culture emerging from conflict, death and broken relationships, the local Church needs to be pointing to the life-changing message of the gospel: a message of peace and life; a message which offers a new relationship with God, and a new relationship with others across society, through the empowering work of the Holy Spirit."

The machinations of politics can be depressing at times. Yet Christians have a better hope. When we look back at what has happened in Northern Ireland, we can see that anything is possible.

Additional reporting by: Joey Robinson and Lauren Agnew. 


PRAYER
20 years after the agreement, there is so much to be thankful for. For example, the end of conflict, the end of violence and for the creation of institutions.
Pray for progress in some of the promised routes of truth and justice, providing a means for people to find out what happened to their relatives, and enabling greater healing.
Pray that the new small group resource, 'Be Reconciled', being co-developed by Evangelical Alliance will be used by churches and the Holy Spirit to bring communities together. That the Church will be an agent of change for reconciliation between communities and most of all, with God through Christ. 
Pray for those who profess faith in Christ in name to live out his life more fully, transcending sectarian barriers with his love.
For renewal and revival in the churches of Northern Ireland. For many people to come to a true and real relationship with Jesus Christ and find his healing and wholeness.

WHAT IS THE GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT?
It was a ground-breaking agreement between political parties in Northern Ireland which helped to bring peace after 30 years of conflict. It established a framework for governing the country that transferred power from Westminster and shared it between nationalist and loyalist groups, and established new government institutions

It also paved the way for the decommissioning of weapons, the early release of "political prisoners", proposals for addressing the past and cross- community measures for developing better social cohesion.  

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