OFMDFM Junior Ministers Martina Anderson and Jonathan Bell sponsored a panel discussion marking Inter-Faith Week, organised by the Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum: “Accommodating faith and diversity in Northern Ireland”.
The panel discussion was chaired by Liam Clarke, and the panellists were: Steven Agnew MLA, Sammy Douglas MLA, Anna Lo MLA, and Conall McDevitt MLA.
Junior Minister Bell gave an introductory speech, expressing his wish that such events become more common. He underlined that people of all faiths or none are part of our community, and that we need to respect and celebrate our differences. Making reference to a reception of Muslims by Reverend Ian Paisley (and making a poor impersonation of the Big Man), Bell said, “You’re among friends now.”
Edwin Graham (Secretary, Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum) gave a background of the establishment of the Forum, and how this year is the first concerted effort by them to raise the profile of Inter-Faith Week. Mr Graham also described the three aims of Inter-Faith Week:
- Strengthening inter-community relations
- Increasing awareness of different and distinct communities in the UK
- Increasing understanding between people of religious and non-religious beliefs
Liam Clarke went through a few rounds of questions, such as “What does it mean for us to live together in Northern Ireland?” Overall, he identified some common issues emanating from the panellists’ and audience’s responses:
- The quality and scope of Religious Education (RE) curriculum in Northern Ireland schools
- The link of religious identity (Orange Order) and Northern Ireland politics
- The common basis of morality among religious and non-religious adherents
Some of my notes from the panellists follow; the full audio of the discussion is at the end.
Sammy Douglas MLA believed in the importance of educating one another of our faith backgrounds, particularly as a way of removing ignorance. For him, in the end it was all about building up friendships, through working and getting to know each other.
Conall McDevitt MLA said that living together means moving beyond tolerance to a state of acceptance. He also underlined the significance of good relations having a statutory basis in Northern Ireland, and the need to codify a Bill of Rights.
Anna Lo MLA described the practice by media and political representatives to refer to “the two communities” — ignoring the perspectives of anyone else — and the importance of ensuring that ethnic minorities have equal rights and are treated equally.
On the topic of RE, she told the story of how her son wanted her to write a note so that he could be excused from sitting the RE course, on the basis of his ethnic minority background. Ms Lo refused, telling her son that as he lives in a majority Christian-populated society, it was important for him to learn how they think, lest he be ignorant.
Steven Agnew MLA said that what he works for is a situation whereby we start our face-to-face encounters as people first — fellow human beings — then learn each others’ identity, religious background, etc.
There was more detailed discussion on the dimension of RE in Northern Ireland. I spoke up and said that I saw two main choices: strictly separate church and state as in the USA, with no religious education in public (state) schools; else ensure that the broadest spectrum of religion and non-religious beliefs are included in any curriculum. To me, the dominance of Christianity in RE here is the worst option, falling in between the two.
In response, a member of the Inter-Faith Forum said that they have always wanted to broaden out the RE curriculum beyond the control of the four churches (Catholic, Church of Ireland, Methodist and Presbyterian), but that their efforts have always fallen on deaf ears among politicians. He appealed the panellists, all Northern Ireland legislators, to confer with their respective party colleagues for a more receptive ear in the future. Mr McDevitt, for one, acknowledged the opportunity to revisit the RE curriculum in the development of the Education Skills Authority and the Entitlement Framework.