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New Era for Northern Ireland -- The Power Of Hope

Mal Fletcher
Posted 10 May 2007
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Never give up on a worthy and just cause -- the future might surprise you.

That is surely the message we should carry from yesterday's launch of the new political administration in Northern Ireland.

Power is being shared by two formerly implacable enemies; representatives of constituencies vehemently opposed to one another during the region's long and infamous Troubles.

Rev Ian Paisley, chairman of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, is First Minister in the new administration. His assistant is Martin McGuinness.

The former is something of a neo—Calvinist reformer who made his name as the fieriest denouncer of the Irish republican cause. McGuinness, on the other hand, was once an active officer with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and hardly the man anyone expected to see joking with Paisley.

There are doubtless many people in Northern Ireland today who, growing up through the 70s, 80s and 90s, thought they would never see this day.

No one can doubt the weariness of the public of Northern Ireland when it comes to internecine violence. No one can doubt their hunger to see politics replace the gun as a means of settling disputes.

During a six-week mission to Belfast in 1994, my second visit to the region, my wife and I saw first-hand the pain which the Troubles had brought the provinces. We met and worked among people on both sides of the divide, at a time when things were decidedly tense.

There was talk of a new initiative for peace, but such attempts had failed before and nobody was expecting too much.

We found among both the nationalist and pro-British communities a sense of resignation. This was not surprising when you consider that an entire generation had grown up knowing nothing other than what was, in effect, civil war.

What was especially disturbing for us at the time was the feeling of apathy among young people.

One eleven year-old Catholic girl recounted for me how she had lost both her father and her uncle to the fighting. I asked her how she felt about it, how it had affected her.

Fired up at first, she replied: ‘It makes me so angry.’ Then, with a sigh, added: ‘But that’s just the way life is here. There’s nothing anyone can do about it.’

I recall addressing a group of girls on the other side of the divide, in an upper-class private school. History, I told them, is only ever changed by those who refuse to accept the status quo.

Ireland as a whole, I said, needs a new generation who will not accept that the way things are is the way they must always be.

At the time, I wondered whether they really believed that things could change in Northern Ireland. Obviously, just 13 years later, I can see that there were people who believed this – enough to sow their lives into seeing a change.

A great many people have invested their energies into seeing the new era emerge. Church leaders, community and business leaders have sown much into getting politicians to talk and find solutions.

I’ve just returned from hosting a summit of European church network leaders in Spain. The 2020Conference looked at the future of Europe and how churches can play a positive role in shaping it for good.

Among the most important things said at the forum was that to effect change, we must join the discourse of the culture. Leaders must ask: ‘What is the culture talking about?’ and then come alongside with helpful suggestions which provoke curiosity.

We can only change a culture when we start talking creatively about what the culture is talking about.

Clearly, a number of leaders – in all spheres of society – have started taking that step in Northern Ireland. They’ve heard the heartbeat of the vast majority of their people and offered helpful ways to fulfil their aspirations.

The new arrangement will require more than the smiles and handshakes we've seen from political leaders over the past few days. Each side will need to practice give and take politics if this is new arrangement – ten years in the making – is to succeed.

The months ahead will reveal just how sensitive are the leadership to their peoples’ passion for peace -- and their willingness to forgive past crimes in the interest of creating a better future.

We should never underestimate the power of hope, even in the sometimes sordid world of politics. For those still living in very troubled parts of our world, the message is plain: don't give up on hope.



What’s your view?

Do you believe the peace in Northern Ireland will last?

Yes

No

Keywords: Northern Ireland | Belfast | Ian Paisley | Martin McGuinness | IRA | hope | power of hope | Mal Fletcher

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