A Shared Home Place – The Unfinished Business of Reconciliation


April 19, 2021 23:46

Address by Maureen Hetherington, Director of The Junction. Guildhall, 10 December 2020

EU flags at the European Commission Berlaymont building

I want to thank the Hume Foundation for inviting me to speak. First of all I’d like to acknowledge the excellent paper presented by Dympna McGlade and the equally excellent responses by Eileen Weir and Duncan Morrow, facilitated by Dawn Purvis. It was comprehensive and I don’t want to repeat what has already been covered, but I will draw on their input, which has helped to shape this overview.

Dympna’s metaphor – of a society transitioning to peace going “round in circles with one foot pinned to the floor”, because of the absence of political leadership of the peace process, is worth repeating.

Duncan Morrow spoke of the need for doing ‘something differently than we have always done before’. He also talked about everything in society needing to be looked at, and he asked what are we trying to create that involves everybody? And acknowledging that there is need to look at the bigger picture!

Eileen has always thought outside the box, her work has been inclusive across all communities and faiths. Eileen stressed the powerful role of peace building by women long before the Good Friday Agreement. They, she says, and not politicians, have led the way in effecting change on the ground.

Damian Gorman, poet and playwright, who has spent his life engaged with community and community relations issues has just brought out a book through the Junction entitled As If I Cared: Poems and Other Parts of a Life. Damian explains the meaning behind the title: He says “Why is it called ‘As If I Cared’? Because that’s the way I move forward. My writing, my bits of vision, my demeanour – they’re all better than me. So I try to be prophetic of whatever bit of good I might do: throw the idea of it somewhere in front of myself, and attempt to grow into it”.

As community relations practitioners and peace builders, our job is to vision, to build a ‘united community’. So how do we go about that? How do we throw the idea of a ‘united community’ out there in front of us and how do we, as a society then attempt to grow into it?

Stormont’s efforts in Together: Building a United Community Strategy and Action Plan, has been doomed to fail from the get-go! Peace building requires a top-down as well as a bottom-up approach. Given the design of the political setup, our politicians cannot do ‘united’; Its anathema to them! The Good Friday Agreement took the existing political system as a given even when it went against the core of reconciliation; It’s a system which, however unintentionally has, to quote Duncan Morrow, “institutionalised sectarianism”.

The inadequacy of the ‘representative democracy’ system is a global as well as a local problem. The built in sectarianism that overlays it in Northern Ireland contains within it a warning to voters that if they don’t vote as usual along sectarian lines, they are effectively advantaging/voting for the ‘other crowd’. This constitutes an enormous pressure, out of fear and mistrust, to vote to block ‘the other’ rather than take decisions that best serve everyone. This is further exacerbated by the behaviour of politicians and their rhetoric. The lack of accountability within the system adds to the deep mistrust and frustration.

Conflict and violence are difficult to overcome. There is no situation globally where justice has been done by means of conflict. This is the messiness and consequence of violence. Our politicians need victimhood  in order to stay in power. Party politics closes down the potential for doing things differently. How many times do we need to consult, draw up reports, talk and deliberate on the same issues without getting a different more satisfactory outcome? There is no potential for a vision of the common good because of party politics. We need to find another model of politics. If society can get a vision of the future then the vision of how politics can work will hopefully emerge.

The Hume Foundation, in partnership with all who strive for real peace, has an opportunity to do something differently; to throw out a new vision, a new way of doing things. As a consequence of a world pandemic, we now have to look at reconciliation differently and do things differently. Everything has changed utterly. No longer can we be insular in our thinking about our place here, or in the world; we need a global vision.

Globalisation takes many different forms; the globalisation we are familiar with is neo-liberalist. It is destructive of humanity and of the earth. But there is an alternative – a global system that is ethical, and compassionate, that following the Africa concept of ‘Ubuntu’ locates individual identity in the context of belonging to each other. It enables human flourishing and a future for life on earth. Ubuntu is about the removal of self-serving practices!

Where to begin? The answer is simple; it starts with us, with addressing the enormous gaps between the haves and have nots and the inequalities exposed by Covid-19. It’s not as difficult as it seems; it has been heartening to see the incredible resourcefulness and generosity of thousands of people on the ground truly bringing a deep and profound meaning to being ‘all in this together’. Individuals and groups across the community and voluntary sector have been providing much needed support and love to the most vulnerable and those in need irrespective of political, religious or cultural backgrounds. There are important lessons to be learnt from this devastating pandemic, for the world at large and in our wee part of the world here; everyone and everything is connected and interdependent; what we believe, what we say, how we act, can have powerful consequences – good and bad, and how we choose to use our power is up to each and every one of us.

Under the terms of the New Decade New Approach Deal (January 2020), the following are requirements of the Executive under the heading ‘Civic Engagement’:

  • To reform the existing Civic Advisory Panel which will propose a model of civic engagement for specific issues, including one Citizens’ Assembly a year and
  • One or two issues per year will be identified by the Executive for civic engagement.

It would seem that the concept of a Citizen’s Assembly remains largely unknown in the public discourse. Suffice here to say that it is a mechanism whereby a group that is truly representative of the wider society is assembled and charged with the task of coming to a determination on a substantive issue affecting the society. The jurisdictions legislature is required to consider the Assembly’s findings and recommendations and either implement them or provide reasons for not so doing.

This requirement, indeed mandate, for extended civic engagement and specifically for Citizens Assemblies, provides a pathway out of logjam on substantive issues that the existing political system has proved incapable of dealing with. The plethora of legacy issues are glaring examples. My work at grass-roots community level leaves me convinced that the goodwill and common sense that is needed to address such issues is present in civic society in spades.

However, dealing with a past that is still recent and raw may be a task that is beyond our generation to complete. It might be useful to reflect on the insights of the late Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi, who, on talking to survivors of the Holocaust, picked up that most of the Holocaust survivors did not talk or deal with the past.  Rather they set about building a future. They set about building a better life for their children and grandchildren. Only when they had done so did they begin to engage fully with the past.

The concluding words of Damien Gorman’s recent drama about the legacy of the Troubles “Anything Can Happen” questions the wisdom of dwelling exclusively on the past. “You can’t cry forever, like you can’t hold your breath forever – even if you wanted to – even if you tried your best – your own lungs would fight you for dear life; and they would win”.

It is the future that matters. So it is questions such as these that need addressed now: What sort of world do we want our children and children’s children to live in, in 2050? What new economic systems are needed? What will be the role of America, China and India, in a world where the centre of gravity in relation to power is visibly shifting? What will be the position of Europe by then? And what will be Ireland’s place in that world of 2050?

This is the bigger picture, the bigger context; as my colleague Seamus Farrell would say, we are but passengers on Spaceship Earth! Local issues such as the constitutional question and the “Shared island” and “Civic unionism” discourses needing attention, must be contextualised in the global.


Can we do things differently?

Reconciliation is relational and it is about social relationships; not at an individual level or between a few people, it is concerned with social relational communities.

Johnston McMaster talks about integrated reconciliation consisting of six strands. The word ‘socio’ is important alongside the themes to emphasise our social, relational communal realities. They are (in no particular order):

  • Socio-political; the Belfast Agreement was about the totality of relationships and there is a need for a new commitment to relationships between the North and South, East and West. Relationships will be crucial post-Brexit or our political system will fall apart.
  • Socio-economic; unless there is a fair, just economic system in place, reconciliation is going to elude us. It is integral to reconciliation. (The big mistake that came out of post WW1 at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919, through financial penalties imposed by victors, and by not addressing the economics, resulted in a failed peace, and created the conditions for the rise of fascism and communism and led to WWII). When poverty is endemic, if poverty and hopelessness is not addressed, then the conditions for future conflict and violence are created.
  • Socio-legal; reconciliation always needs to bring about legal reform; a more just legal system is required and core to that is human rights legislation. In our society, North and South, and in British society, there are no Human Rights Bills and that may become an issue post-Brexit, for people in Britain and here. Over 50% of Northern Ireland’s population have European passports and will remain European citizens and where will they stand in the European Court of Human Rights and the Global Human Rights Legislation?
  • Socio-environmental; reconciliation includes relationships with nature. We need to address issues of climate change. How well do we do in relation to various protocols and agreements (Paris and Kyoto Agreements to bring down our carbon emissions for example). What do we do with waste? It’s part of reconciliation; but we are not thinking about or discussing this widely enough. Instead we are caught up in a past that does not address huge issues coming down the track. If our politicians cannot work together now, what does the future hold for us on every important issue that will impact and potentially destroy lives, livelihoods, in our generation, and for future generations.
  • Socio-psychological; who we are and where we belong. Identity politics need to be taken out of a parochial context. There are multiple identities, and we need to move away from binary terms which are not a reality in our lives. A large percentage of the population do not see their identity tied up in such binary terms. We have multiple, complex identities including gender identities; we need to break out of binary thinking if we are future oriented. Can we be more global in our thinking? Can we have shared identities? The big myth at the heart of the ‘UK out of Brexit’ negotiations is that they are fixated on absolute sovereignty which does not actually exist and will exist less after Covid-19. (We are only getting vaccines because the world collaborated!)
  • Socio-spiritual; This does not mean religiosity or institutional forms of religion. Spirituality is to do with purpose, meaning and values. What are the values and ethics that need to be at the heart of reconciliation now and into the future? How will they shape 2050?

How do we as a society build neighbourliness, a tenacious solidarity that is relational – and, worth mentioning again, this has been evidenced throughout the pandemic, where communities have set aside their differences and worked across all community settings to support the vulnerable, sick and needy.

Leo Varadkar, former Taoiseach, talked about the need for a new covenant – can we enter into a covenant of neighbourliness with each other for the sake of the common good? For the achievement of lasting peace that will need all of the strands of reconciliation that I have mentioned above.

So where are we right now? I suggest that, under our current system of power and government, we are skirting about the edges, we are walking around the houses. In her paper to Session 1, Dympna wondered if it’s not that “We are stuck – with both feet nailed to the floor”.

In order to bring about a reconciled and united community, we need to be looking at structural and systemic changes at the heart of government. But we can begin with the empowerment of civic society, by bringing about participative and deliberative democracy.

May I conclude, as did Dympna McGlade in Session 1, with this quote from John Hume “The real duty now, if we want to have a totally peaceful and stable country, is for all true democrats to implement the will of the people”.

Maureen Hetherington is Director of The Junction.