Politicians of faith need to show moral courage

Much has to be done to sustain peace

Easter is a wonderful time. The Easter liturgy takes us through the journey of our faith from the Last Supper to Crucifixion and Resurrection. The Easter Vigil is a profound celebration of our faith, starting in a darkened bare church, in which the priest reminds us that, “on this most holy night when our Lord Jesus Christ passed from death to life, the Church invites her children throughout the world to come together in vigil and prayer…that we may share his victory over death and live forever with him in God”. The fire is lit, the church fills with the light of hundreds of candles. We hear the great story of how God saved his people through the ages until “in the fullness of time he sent his own Son to be our Redeemer”. We go through the liturgy of baptism and the liturgy of the Eucharist and we leave the church so very blessed by all that has happened to us. It is my favourite night of the Church year. It is redolent with hope.

Sitting in the Royal Gallery watching the President of Ireland address the members of the Houses of Parliament last week I felt as if I really was watching something historic. It too was a time of hope, and of the recognition of change. It was the first time an Irish President had ever spoken at Westminster, and he spoke well, recognising the significance of the occasion. He was received with a standing ovation. Politicians of all parties were present and there seemed to be much satisfaction that we had finally come to a place where our history no longer divides us.

It all seemed warm and positive. There was very clear acknowledgement of work well done in difficult situations.

Immense pride

All that is true, of course. However, as the president said: “our two countries can take immense pride in the progress of the cause of peace in Northern Ireland. But of course there is still a road to be travelled – the road of a lasting and creative reconciliation – and our two governments have a shared responsibility to encourage and support those who need to complete the journey of making peace permanent and constructive, enduring”.

Just a couple of weeks ago the third NI Peace Monitoring Report was published by the Community Relations Council. It is an independent report, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an organisation which has consistently funded, and thereby enabled, so much work to help the people of Northern Ireland on the journey to peace.

I read the Monitoring Report as I watched the Queen, the President and so many Irish people celebrating, and it made grim reading – a significant contrast to the colour and pageantry of the presidential visit.

Dr Paul Nolan, who wrote the Report has produced a summary of ten key points. As a people we need to reflect on what is happening, so insidiously, in our midst. He illustrates each point with the evidence he has identified. I have included some of that evidence.

‘The moral basis of the 1998 peace accord has evaporated’ – the model on offer from the top is peace without reconciliation;

‘The absence of trust has resulted in the absence of progress’ – there has been failure to make progress on health, welfare and education. A standoff on welfare reform is costing Northern Ireland £5m a month. We have been unable to deal with the past, with flags and with parades;

‘There has been some increase in polarisation’ in 2012/13 411 people were intimidated out of their homes which were bought by the emergency evacuation scheme, an increase of 25% on the previous year. There has been a sharp drop in people expressing a preference for mixed religion work places and neighbourhoods, particularly among young people;

‘A culture war is being talked into existence’ – there is a concern among the wider body of unionism that a culture war will take away loyalist symbols and traditions.


Yet there were more loyalist marches in 2013 than ever before and only 388 were contested. There are more marching bands than ever. Official recognition of and funding for Orange cultural themes and ‘Ulster-Scots’ is at unprecedented levels;

‘Failure lies in wait for young working class Protestant males’ – only 19.7% of Protestant boys and 32% of young Protestant girls entitled to free school meals leave school with at least five GCSEs. This compares to 43% of Catholic girls and 33% of Catholic boys. When researchers looked at children NOT entitled to free school meals they discovered that 76% of Catholic girls, 71% of Protestant girls, 64% of Catholic boys and 58% of Protestant boys leave with at least five GCSEs. 24% of Protestant boys aged 16 to 24 are unemployed compared with 17% of Catholic boys. Young Protestant boys were much in evidence in confrontations with the police and subsequent court cases;

‘Front line police have been the human shock absorbers for failures elsewhere’ – 682 police officers were wounded in public order disturbances. Violence against the police has once more become accepted as part of life;

‘The rebalancing of inequalities unbalances unionism’ – Catholics still experience more economic and social disadvantage. They are more likely to be unemployed, to be in poor health and they out-score Protestants on almost every measure of social deprivation. However there is a re-balancing of professional and managerial occupations. As Belfast moved from Protestant domination the demographic change was experienced by some as loss;

‘No one picks up the tab’ – failure in Northern Ireland comes cost free. None of the parties paid a political price for the failure of the Haass talks; the organisers of contested marches and events never receive a bill for the millions of pounds spent policing them. The marching season cost £18.5m in additional policing costs, compared with £4.1m in 2012. The results of all this additional cost have impacted on education and health;

There are two positive key points:

‘The City of Culture year presented a different understanding of culture’ – events in Derry modelled a post-conflict society;

‘At grassroots level the reconciliation impulse remains strong’ – much of what takes place in neighbourhoods defies stereotyped notions. Reconciliation continues to be stronger at grass roots than at the top of society.

So, whilst we have made great progress, there is still much to be done and we are moving backwards rather than forwards.  

Sustain peace

Reading this report confirms my belief that much has to be done to sustain our peace, if we are not to drift into further conflict. It is not just to be done by governments. Of course, we all need to pay our part also, but the key actors on the evidence, are the DUP and Sinn Féin. The need for proper government in the common good is understood by the people. 

At this time of Resurrection, the shared core beliefs of the Catholic and Protestant people of Northern Ireland could form such a basis for starting to move forward. Faith cannot stop in the church. It has to be real. So many members of our leading parties are seen to be churchgoers. Can they, through their faith, find the moral courage to abandon sectarian government and to lead the people forward on the basis of justice into real peace?