In mid-September 2019 Northern Ireland will reach a significant milestone in its history. It’s one that seems highly unlikely to attract any of the attention of our decade of centenaries, the 100th anniversaries of the Home Rule crisis and Ulster Covenant, the Easter Rising, the Somme, and the establishment of the state itself.
The dates, I’m going to argue, could admittedly be debated but I’m talking about the tipping point when our post-Troubles period becomes longer than the Troubles itself; our local equivalent of 6 February 2018 when the Berlin Wall had been down longer than it was up.
In setting out these dates I’m taking as my starting point 14th and 15th August 1969 when British troops were deployed on the streets of Belfast and Londonderry, and a number of people were killed as major clashes occurred in North and West Belfast. For my end point I’m taking 31 August 1994 when the IRA announced a complete cessation of its military campaign.
I’ll readily admit there’s a level of subjectivity to these bookends. The events in mid-August 1969 weren’t a civic jack-in-the-box that popped up from nowhere and nor did violence disappear from our society at the end of August 1994. Many innocent people have suffered cruelly since then, not least the victims of the Omagh bomb and their families in August 1998. The precise date of my suggested line in the sand can be debated, but not, I believe, the core issues it raises.
So, if these events are further in the past than the days the Troubles actually occurred, how have we failed so materially to move on? Why do these shadows still fall so bleakly over our civic life and communities? Why does Northern Ireland remain so depressingly gummed up in mistrust, tribalism and ”whataboutery”?
Most of us haven’t yet worked out what good truth telling and reconciliation looks like, and we remain grievously damaged by competing narratives and the lack of any shared version of our history to gather round. Then there are all the events that have punctured trust along the way, from the parades disputes of the late nineties to two years and counting of a collapsed Stormont in the late noughties, with Brexit, RHI, an Irish language act, abortion and same-sex marriage all contributing to entrenchment. The centre ground is hollowed out and the extremes don’t even look close to wanting to do a deal.
After 20 years and counting of violence, things couldn’t go on as they were. The early 1990s had a momentum about it, an energy of ‘enough is enough’, an echoing of the ancient Hebrew cry of ‘How long, Lord?’ Our society was drained by violence, tens of thousands of families scarred, hundreds of thousands worn out and fearful. Some in the church stepped up and played their part, with bold clerics rolling up their sleeves and having hard conversations with men of violence, and initiatives such as ECONI articulating the theological imperative for reconciliation and forgiveness.
And now, after 25 years of non-violence, are we not at a place again where there should be a groundswell of frustration demanding that we can’t go on as we are? Many of us who are middle class are better off financially but we need to look around and see that the post-Troubles financial dividends have not been equally shared, with too many feeling left behind.
It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that prosperity has left too many of us with little banked but complacency, given our willingness to take for granted a level of division that ought to be intolerable.
And anyhow, are the Cathedral Quarter and Titanic Quarter and Victoria Square the best we can be and what we all longed for? Did we pine for a choice of Belfast eateries and new cars and mobile phones on three-year leases or did we not want something more?
When we talk about legacy issues in Northern Ireland we automatically see that in terms of 1969 to 1994, and enormous academic and spiritual thinking has been brought to bear on that era. But when mid-September 2019 rolls round there’ll be a longer post-Troubles era than there was a Troubles-era. And so, in order to move forward, do we need to lay aspects of those 25 years aside now, and see a new generation of peacemakers and emerge to wrestle with what has left us so wrung out, with hope and light fighting a losing battle against cynicism and darkness?
1994 to 2019 has its own legacy too, so where’s the church and where is the new theology for these times we live in going to come from? When the bombs and bullets have gone, what understanding will we seek from God for how we got to drift and deadlock, how we deal not with men in balaclavas with weapons but rather with the sapping dogmatism of a politician behind a microphone saying all the same old things, with blank faced nodding dogs from their party gathered around them.
Where’s the groundswell where good people rise up and say ‘How long, Lord?’
Colin Neill is a Board Member of Contemporary Christianity
Are evangelicals and evangelism on a slippery slope - even a slide into a cultural no-man's land? The answer, I suggest, is a definite maybe!
Maybe evangelicals have become so obsessed with issues of sexuality, gender and 'traditional' values that they are doing little else other than react to the agenda set by the prevailing secularised culture, and so have lost sight of their primary calling to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Continue reading →
On April 10th 1998 I was an almost one year old baby living in Johannesburg, South Africa; a country recovering from the Apartheid; a system of institutionalised racial segregation and discrimination that existed in South Africa between 1948 and 1994. As a one year old I knew nothing of this, I loved my white Father who was from England and came home every day from work providing. I adored my coloured Mother who also went out to work and came home to look after me and my brother. My nanny who was black that looked after us kids while my parents were at work would make us laugh so hard until we cried. These were all just people I loved, I didn’t care what colour skin they had so why would their religion title also be a measure of my love for them?
When we moved to Northern Ireland in November 2001 the Good Friday Agreement had been in place for a number of years now and the prospect of peace was high. But now 20 years on the same cannot be said. As the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement being signed draws near our Province is slowly deteriorating away from the once promised peace. As the six o’clock news comes on, we sit down to the hope that the parties at Stormont have resolved their issues and once again would become a beacon of hope, prosperity and most importantly peace. But day after day we are faced with more anger, violence and disappointment.
Am I optimistic for peace? Despite everything, yes. Recognising that God calls us to live faithfully, I am optimistic that change can occur because we are told in Jeremiah 29:11 that God has a plan for us, plans to give us hope and a future. Northern Ireland is in need of hope right now as Stormont remains dormant resulting in schools losing funding and the health service coming under further strain. My hope for our country is that however hard the past was, it is time to live in the present in order for our future and the future of our younger generation to never experience what went on over 20 years ago. However, it seems that the stalemate we are now experiencing is, in a different kind of way, just as draining for the society as the violence was; it could be the smoke before the fire.
For the past five years I have been working as a Christian volunteer in a predominantly Catholic area helping to facilitate the running of a Christian Kids Club for all children of the area; simply with the intention of sharing the love of Jesus through songs, games, stories and crafts. I have seen kids and leaders from both sides of the community come together with questions, love, joy and understanding but most importantly, peace. If a seven year old Protestant boy and a seven year old Catholic boy can come together and play games together, cheering each on and laughing, seeking to win for their entire team, then I simply cannot comprehend why adults cannot do the same. What we are experiencing now is not peace, but as Jesus said in John 16:33 (NIV) “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Therefore I see my job as part of the Good Friday Generation to take this as the slogan for my life and that of the children in my ministry, that although we may not have peace now, Jesus has already made peace with us all, it is now our responsibility to carry on this peace to those around us.
The church over the past 20 years has learnt a lot and I feel it is still continuing to educate itself on how to address the situation. Peace-making is an underlying theme throughout the Bible so therefore it should be the Church’s mission now to fulfill this and I believe it has been better than before but like most things, there is room for improvement. Ways of tackling this may be by simply using appropriate language within the Church and also promoting and providing more opportunities for cross-community peace programmes.
As the 20th Anniversary draws nears cannot help but think of the 40th Anniversary, 50th etc. I find it hard to believe in the generation that are currently in charge of the Good Friday Agreement because quite frankly it is non-existent so the possibility of a 50th Anniversary seems very distant and bleak. However, with my work with the youth and children of this generation my optimism in them is strong as I believe God is preparing a generation of young Christian men and woman to help lead this small but wonderful country back to the peace that was once promised. I am proud citizen of South Africa that has a coloured mother and a white father that came out peacefully from the Apartheid, but I am also a proud citizen of Northern Ireland where I have spent my life growing up happy and at peace due to the protection of the Good Friday Agreement. I want the same for the kids in my Kids Club, in my church and for the future generation.
Tove Lappin is a student at the Institute for Children, Youth and Mission currently on placement at Reach Mentoring.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.
At the beginning of its 70th year the NHS has hardly got off to the happiest of birthdays what with 12 hour waits to be seen at A&E departments, patients yet again lying on trolleys in corridors, cancelled elective surgery and staff leaving their jobs in alarming numbers because of low morale. And to that add the news also that we have pretty mediocre cancer survival rates compared with other western countries. Continue reading →
A few days ago I had the very real privilege of speaking at the prayer breakfast, which marked the start of the 2018 Four Corners’ festival, and am glad to have been given the opportunity to share the essence of that talk. Continue reading →
What has Jimmy Carter to do with Pat Robertson? Both would name themselves evangelicals, but it would be a very broad church indeed that could accommodate them. David Bebbington came up with perhaps the most credible definition of the evangelical movement in his Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. Evangelicalism, according to Bebbington, has four characteristics: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism. Undoubtedly, many calling themselves evangelicals would still affirm these, but the range of meaning ascribed to each of these characteristics by those within the evangelical tradition has expanded dramatically, to the point where encompassing so much they explain very little. Continue reading →
It’s often hard to step back and see the wide horizon of the moment of time, in which we live. The breathing space that decades, and even centuries allow, is a luxury not usually available within a lifetime. Continue reading →