From Crisis to Hope: Can Churches Contribute to Northern Ireland’s Election Debate?

‘From Crisis to Hope: Working to Achieve the Common Good.’ That’s the title of a recently-published document from the Council for Justice and Peace of the Irish Episcopal Conference. It was the focus of discussion this morning at the Forthspring community centre/Springfield Road Methodist Church. Hosted by the Northern Ireland Catholic Council on Social Affairs, the event was billed as ‘a discussion on the common good ahead of elections in Northern Ireland.’

Chaired by Eamonn Mallie, panellists included Noël Treanor, Bishop of Down and Connor and Chair of the Commission for Social and International Affairs of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference; Wesley Blair, Chair of the Council of Social Responsibility of the Methodist Church in Ireland; Jan Melia, Forthspring Inter-Community Group; Sandra Moore, Director of Homelessness Services at the Welcome Organisation, Belfast; Deirdre O’Rawe, Regional Director, ACCORD Northern Ireland; and Rev Bill Shaw, Director, The 174 Trust.

The document attempts to introduce the concept of the ‘common good’ into public discourse. Its intended audience is people north and south of the border, so it makes reference to the economic crisis in both jurisdictions.

But today’s discussion focused was focused on Northern Ireland, and moving beyond our historically divided politics to find ways to address together issues of the common good, such as child poverty, civic participation, education, cohesive communities, and good relations.

The discussion included some impressive statements, such as Traenor’s pledge that the ‘Catholic Church and community’ should respond constructively to educational disadvantage among the Protestant working class. He said:

The recent Report (March 2011) by Dawn Purvis MLA and her Working Group on Educational Disadvantage and the Protestant Working Class entitled A Call to Action was a clarion call for every citizen in Northern Ireland. I want to say this morning, located as we are the interface between the Shankhill Road and the Springfield Road, that the leaders of the Catholic Church and community also hear that call and have a duty to respond to it.

I am curious about what a Catholic, or rather a combined Catholic-Protestant church response to the issues flagged in Purvis’ report, might look like.

Blair described as ‘iniquitous’ the extortionate rate of interest on personal loans, the rise in university fees, and the recent decision not to fund a cancer unit at Altnagelvin. He said that priests and ministers in Derry would soon be presiding over the early funerals of cancer victims and asked, ‘is this the kind of society we want?’

But how to move to a different kind of society?

Blair challenged those present to find out which parties or politicians can articulate positions that would alleviate child poverty, improve educational opportunities, and prioritise social justice over bank bailouts and military spending. As Shaw put it:

We are told the cupboard is bare, but we find the money to go to war. We need to call politicians to account and start a real war against poverty.

Panellists and those in the audience were also well-aware that the voice of the churches no longer carries the influence that it once did. Others, even those who work for church or community-based organisations, pointed out that they were minorities within their church institutions.

They might care deeply about child poverty or better community relations, but it is difficult getting others in the churches to devote their energies to it. As one member of the audience said, the churches are too preoccupied with protecting their own institutions rather than looking after the poor in society – and this didn’t seem to fit with the gospel of Jesus.

Another member of the audience, who is part of the church-based social justice group at Stormont, spoke of his frustration that the group is ‘struggling because churches are not making it a priority.’ He said that the group had actually been started at the instigation of politicians, who were concerned that they were not being challenged by the churches. The politicians wanted to engage more regularly with the churches on social justice issues.

This raised questions about whether those in the room – churches, organisations or individuals – actually had any power to influence public debate, politicians or policy decisions. And for those who felt alienated or powerless, especially among the young, how could they be inspired to get involved?

Mallie, who wandered about during the discussion time posing pointed questions to unsuspecting members of the audience, at one stage turned to a young woman and wanted to know her thoughts on the impact people could have on politics in Northern Ireland.

Rawan Arar, a visiting research assistant at Trinity College Dublin at Belfast, said that she had only arrived in the country two days ago. But she thought that the people whose contributions she had heard so far seemed dedicated to ‘service.’ When she emphasised that it is important to instil a sense of service in people, Mallie asked where that came from in her – was it religious conviction?

Arar explained that she is American and Muslim, the daughter of Palestinian refugees, and her family’s experiences had instilled in her the importance of prioritising service to others.

Traenor returned to Arar’s remarks as the discussion closed, saying that ‘politics should not be about control, it should be about service.’ Blair said that people in the churches and other concerned citizens might not have power in the sense of control, but they have opportunities for engagement.

There will be further discussion about these issues on the next Sunday Sequence.

 

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com