Disunity has a great cost for us all

Political strife affects a common Christian heritage

I sometimes think that Christian Unity Week has a particular urgency and importance in Northern Ireland.  We have so many Christian Churches, relatively high levels of church attendance, and yet for over 40 years we have been involved in a conflict in which the participants tend to be identified at least in part by their perceived religious affiliation.

When I travel to different parts of the world people often ask me what our conflict is about. They cannot understand why some apparent Christians are fighting some other apparent Christians, particularly when they come here and see that, as one woman put it, "your children have schools to go to, you have hospitals where you can seek help, the soldiers are not taking your children for child soldiers or camp slaves. Why do you fight?" 


Of course, the answer for most of us is that we don't.  There is a question though for each of us.  Do we discriminate on grounds of religion about where we shop, where we live, how we arrange our social lives?  Should we?  Do our prayers for Christian Unity need to be accompanied by the manifestation of our determination to treat everyone equally, not discriminating against those whom we perceive as the other?  Is that what Christian Unity is really about – 'loving one another as I have loved you'?  Are there things we can do in our daily life to foster unity in our world?  What do they look like?  For each of us they will be different.

It can be difficult to step outside our own little world, and to try and see those who seem to inhabit another world as our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is especially difficult when our brothers and sisters in Christ don't really seem to want to know us, despite our best efforts. That is how it must have been for Christ as he faced the prospect of his execution at the hands of the people he was trying to convert – so profoundly difficult. Yet he did it, and after execution came resurrection and redemption.

The problem we have is that there is an ongoing political situation despite our common Christian heritage with all that it involves. The disunity which is the consequence of that situation has a great cost for all of us. Our leaders have not yet found the courage to fully embrace each other, to acknowledge the responsibility of caring for the common good, and to bring people together in real peace. For many there is a fear that votes will be lost if they behave differently.

Nightly protest

Take one simple example of just how disunity and leadership failures have blighted our country. Since July 12, 2013 there has been a nightly protest by loyalists in North Belfast at the Twaddell Avenue/Ardoyne junction. There is also what is referred to as a civil rights camp established at the interface there. The loyalists are protesting that they are not allowed by the Parades Commission to walk up the Crumlin Road back to Ligoneil Hall. The camp is just yards away from the location of the Holy Cross Primary School protest. As a consequence of the protest and the republican opposition to it, sometimes involving violence, there is greatly heightened tension in the area.  It is costing £60,000 a night to police the protest and the camp which the loyalists have set up.

The protests have lasted approximately 200 days and at £60,000 a night that is £12 million so far. There is no sign of it coming to an end.

In a society ravaged by unemployment, with one of the highest levels of mental illness in the developed world, with 25% of our population suffering some form of disability, many not able to get the help they need, we are spending £60,000 a night policing the minority of people who appear at that interface!  In 2011 our levels of mental illness were 25% higher here than in Britain, while funding was 25% less. How much more could we do with £60,000 a day to enable employment, to treat mental health and to make life more accessible and bearable for the disabled and the marginalised?  If the protests continue until next summer we will spend about £22million policing them. There is no sign of any dawning unity among the people involved on both sides.

Is it naive to suggest that there is a link between these events and Christian Unity Week?


The reality is that Christian Unity week has to be something much more than a group of like-minded people gathering together to pray. In 1996 at the loyalist protests in our church in Harryville, Ballymena, people from all denominations (and probably none) came to support the parishioners who were going to Mass every Saturday evening for 79 weeks in the face of a loyalist protest which on occasions comprised over 400 people. It was a frightening situation for them and for the parishioners. Their support was much welcomed. My abiding memory of it is of praying for the protestors outside, and marvelling at the capacity of the Catholic people of Ballymena to continue to come peacefully to worship in the face of the violence and intimidation outside.  We could not afford the Harryville protests. They cost millions to police, and they caused such damage and disruption to peopleís lives, even forcing some to abandon their homes. Eventually they stopped.

Now we really cannot afford the Twadell Avenue protest or the opposition to it. The British Government will provide no additional money to pay for it. The cost of it will come from the NI budget.


Why can't we as a people have the courage to say, 'this is wrong'? Whatever the merits of the protestors' desire to walk through Ardoyne, it has been decided that this cannot happen. We are a country ruled by law and it has been decided through a legally binding process that the march cannot take place. That should be the end of it.  We should not be wasting £60,000 a night in policing costs, to say nothing of all the additional costs in terms of injury, disruption to life, damage, fear, distress and inconvenience caused.

We should be spending that money on our sick, our disabled, improving public services, building a better future. Instead we are sitting by as the police spend £60,000 a night to keep the peace between the protesters and those who object to the protest.

It is time for our leaders to identify all such terrible waste of our precious and limited resources, and say, "Enough.  We really have to work together for the common good." Some progress was made in the Haass talks. Making peace requires sacrifice and compromise. We need to build a new world for our children in which there are no more Twaddell Avenues, no more triumphalism, no more violence.

Has Christian Unity Week got anything to do with this? Can a focus on prayer for unity among people who worship one God, though in different churches and denominations, shine a light on the real disunities in our culture and enlighten our minds so that we may examine carefully the way we live our lives and ask ourselves is there anything I can do to bring an end to a little bit of that disunity? It is not betrayal to focus outside our own and to embrace the other – it is the way to life.

We can do it, if we but listen to the God /man who calls us all to peace.