“two challenges and a serious suggestion” offered to Ulster GAA by Dr Norman Hamilton

It’s hard to predict where a Presbyterian minister will pop up next. The latest nationalist foray was conducted this afternoon by former moderator Dr Norman Hamilton who had accepted an invitation to address the Ulster GAA at their Club and Community Development Conference in Armagh City Hotel (the scene of last week’s UUP conference).

Back on 10 January when he was still moderator, Hamilton met with the Ulster GAA in Armagh.

The meeting during which the news of Michaela McAreavey’s death came through – though we were unaware at the time of the cruel and tragic circumstances. The news changed the course of that meeting, for we were able to pray for the family in the quietness of that room. Then just a few months later I was privileged to meet Constable Ronan Kerr’s family at his funeral in Beragh after his brutal murder a few days earlier.

As he started his address, Hamilton identified himself as a “Christian pastor”.

My core identity is as a follower of Jesus Christ – however poorly I may carry that through. I come not as an armchair politician, or community activist, or social commentator, but as someone trying to bring my best understanding of where the teaching of both the Bible and of Jesus himself would take us on the often complex issues facing us all in Ireland today.

It’s a very measured address, that is sensitive to the listener and often seemed to pre-empt the emotional reaction its words could engender in those in the room.

You have asked me to offer some challenges to you … I am very conscious that the road of challenge is a two way street – for whenever a challenge is accepted and met, that of itself brings back a challenge to the person or group who asked the original question. The response creates a challenge in reverse – and that is healthy, because the two way dialogue leads to much better relationships and understanding.

Hamilton’s first challenge was around how the use of the Irish language could be “de-footballed”.

He started off by acknowledging that “the Irish language is a key expression of Irish culture, history and that Irish medium schools have a valued place in our educational system” before noting its value with a Presbyterian context.

It may surprise you to know that as far back as the 1830s all students for the Presbyterian ministry in Ulster were required to be competent in the Irish language. And in today’s world, I would actually expect native Irish speakers to do business in Irish, to have everyday conversation in Irish, to have radio and TV programmes in Irish. This greatly enriches the cultural traditions of the island. I do not want to see the Irish language relegated to the back benches.

Hamilton suggested that at times the use of Irish “switches off and even antagonises very many – maybe even a majority of the unionist population here in the North”.

It is not always wise to use a right to its fullest extent if in doing so we increase resistance to that right. It is not always wise to press for something, however desirable, if in doing so we devalue what it stands for in the eyes of others.

He went on to state that “a second set of street signs in Irish” can be seen as staking “an exclusivist claim for territory in a way that flags also do”. He questioned why a government department would send him “a bi-lingual letter in Irish as well as in English … paid for by the taxpayer, that the sender knows I cannot read?”

I want it [Irish] to be properly valued – not just by those who speak it – but by those of us who do not speak it.

Hamilton looked at the development of the Welsh language, which he claimed was “no longer a political rugby ball”. Instead, “the focus is on giving people the opportunity to learn it and on encouraging them to do so”. Welsh was “no longer the preserve of nationalist politics”.

Having invited the GAA to consider how to help remove partisan politics out of the Irish language, he went on to talk about the “building of a truly shared society”.

Hamilton praised the GAA’s “sense of place – your emphasis on the local and the ‘parish’”. He achnowledged “first rate work” done by the GAA “at local level with young people as well as promoting community spirit and work through local clubs and local activities”. He commented that churches too operated at a parish level and shared a “strong sense of local place and local pride”.

… in general we still struggle as to how to share our sense of community, our own perspectives, hopes, fears and needs with those outside our own tradition and our own immediate area – wherever we live and whatever our background. We are reasonably good at building what the sociologists call ‘bonding capital’ – connecting with people rather like ourselves – but as a society we have not really learned to build ‘bridging capital’ – connecting well with people who are not like us.

This problem was more “than education programmes alone can deliver”, worthy though they be.

… there is still a huge gap between how you in the GAA see yourselves and your work, and how it is seen and understood by those outside the GAA community. There are many reasons for this, but please do not underestimate that to be properly understood in wider society and to be properly responsive to wider society is going to be a very long haul.

I want therefore to make a serious suggestion for your consideration that might well help with this. That you take the initiative to set up a structured forum for dialogue with the civic society of the unionist community. In such a forum, we could stand in each other’s shoes; we could learn to talk well together; we could address the perceptions of the other, share some hopes, work though some real fears, as well as build some substantial personal and some very much needed public relationships.

Hamilton finished with the challenge of “how to help shape the coming decade of centenaries so that we all benefit from the events and anniversary events”.

And there is an increasing urgency to figure out how to mark anniversaries well. The urgency behind the commemorations debate is that by 2018 we will be in a situation of 50 years on since 1968. This brings us into a new and exceedingly difficult round of anniversaries in which many people who experienced those events will be still alive.

That fact alone makes them immensely important, for every year after 2018 will be the fiftieth anniversary of an atrocity – another 30 consecutive years of anniversaries after 2018. We must talk about this now – and we must – absolutely must get our upcoming anniversaries acknowledged and remembered in a way that properly honours the past, but does not trap us into wanting to or trying to re-run it. Democracy at the beginning of the 21st century is very different to democracy at the beginning of the 20th century.

It is, I think, very important to remember that the history of Northern Ireland and the history of the Irish Republic did not begin with the struggles over partition. There is a shared and often tortured history involving us all.

There are also myths to be dispelled, and unknown and even uncomfortable facts to be allowed to surface and to be properly interpreted. For example, it came as a real surprise to me to know that the Ulster Covenant was signed not only in Belfast and Edinburgh, but by 2000 men in Dublin as well.

Hamilton quoted James Craig who while famous for referring to “a protestant government for a protestant people” also said “I, myself, laid down the principle, to which I still adhere, that I was Prime Minister not of one section of the community but of all, and that as far as I possibly could I was going to see that fair play was meted out to all classes and creeds without any favour whatever on my part.”

It seems to me to very important to find some big overarching ideas that will enable us to properly remember the past, and, at the same time, help shape our thinking for the present and our hopes and plans for the future. It is beyond question that our forefathers took what they believed were the right courses of action in their day and generation – in that climactic period from 1912 – 1922. They took a variety of positions as to what good citizenship meant to them in their time.

But democracy has moved on recognisably since then – not least in the aftermath of much war and much pain. For the Unionist community, good citizenship 100 years ago meant that they signed the Ulster Covenant. By 1998 good citizenship to the majority of citizens on this island meant that both the Unionist and nationalist/republican electorate voted for the implementation of the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement.

Commending the GAA’s visible commitment to shared future and citing the examples of their involvement in Constable Kerr’s funeral and the Queen’s visit to Croke Park, Hamilton went on to remind his audience about the GAA’s “clear policy of showing respect for the different cultural and political identities that exist in our community”. A respect that includes “people’s right to express their cultural and national identity in line with that Good Friday Agreement” as well as “the right of the GAA to be an Irish Cultural, Community and Sporting organisation”.

… those of us to whom a shared future matters are already in the business of re-defining active citizenship in a new way for our time and generation – basing it on mutuality, respect, consensus and with rigorous, but non confrontational debate about the values we wish to see upheld in our democratic systems for the up and coming generations.

I also want to suggest that those of us with clear Christian and Biblical convictions ought to be part of that debate, not least because our shared Christian heritage goes back over 1600 years to St Patrick and his ministry here in Ireland. A shared future is but one facet of what the Bible teaches on the importance of restored relationships.

The GAA’s active involvement in shaping centenary anniversaries and how the past is remembered could turn it into a “decade of citizenship” and “years of healing some of the wounds of the past”.

Norman Hamilton will be on Sunday Sequence tomorrow, and the GAA will respond to his address.

Photo by Moochin Photoman

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.