Haass Hope: Will Young People take up the Challenge of Politics in Northern Ireland?

On Sunday, about 150 young people gathered in Belfast for an event called ‘Haass Hope,’ designed to give them a platform where they could share their views on flags, parades and dealing with the past.

While the event featured short plenary lectures from Brett Lockhart QC, Dr Duncan Morrow of the University of Ulster, and Lord Robin Eames on those three topics, the main point of the day was for politicians and church leaders to listen to what the young people had to say.

You can listen to the audio here:

It was organised by a network of Christian organisations, including Summer Madness and Evangelical Alliance. Many of the participants came from outside Belfast, some travelling as church youth groups.

The participants had a chance for discussion in two small group sessions, one of which I facilitated. Politicians and church leaders were invited to observe and listen (and to speak if they just couldn’t contain themselves).

My group focused on the need for integrated education, the opportunities for creating ‘safe spaces’ where people could meet and build relationships with each other, and trying to think of ways they could do something at the grassroots rather than waiting for the politicians to take action.

On his Facebook page, Fr Martin Magill of Sacred Heart Parish in North Belfast, who said one of the opening prayers, provided a useful summary of what he had heard:

We want to have somewhere to live that we are proud of
We can win together
The peace walls need to come down
Compassion is needed
Taking offence is a national sport
The future can have room for parades
Violence is wrong
Some wanted an independent Northern Ireland
Some wanted a new flag for Northern Ireland
There needs to be a chance for people to meet and speak
There needs to be a way of telling the story of the past
We need to move beyond the past
We can look to things that unite us more than divide us

The young people were from all arts and parts. They were from Catholic and Protestant communities. They were brave and a generation of future leaders. I’d vote for them!

After the group sessions there was a further plenary where participants, politicians, and church leaders were invited to feed back what they had heard in the small group discussions. For the politicians and church leaders this took the form of a (surprisingly entertaining, I must say) ‘Mock the Week.’

The politicians and church leaders were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about what they had heard over the course of the afternoon, though I must admit I had picked up some fatalism and pessimism amongst those in my group. Having said that, fatalism/pessimism can be no bad thing if it aids realistic assessment of our challenges. It becomes problematic if it paralyzes people and prevents them from taking action.

The closing plenary also featured an intriguing use of live mobile phone ‘polling’ on key issues, with questions such as: ‘In regards to flags, what is the best way forward?’ (A new flag or two flags were the most popular preferences.)

Church of Ireland Bishop Harold Miller closed with a short sermon based on the biblical story of Caleb and Joshua and the spies who were sent into the Promised Land. Reflecting on how Caleb and Joshua were the only ones who did not see the task ahead of them as too difficult, he called on people to commit to tackling the challenges we face socially and politically. Miller also warned that Caleb and Joshua (the ones who had wanted to tackle the challenges) had been dismissed by the majority. This had led to everyone wandering fruitlessly around in circles for a generation.

There was a lively buzz at the event and an expectation, or at least a hope, that it would encourage young people to become more engaged in politics or social activism. Admittedly, such an event is self-selecting – more likely to attract young people who are already engaged socially and politically – but it was encouraging to hear young people say it helped them to think about flags, parades, the past and other issues in new ways.

For any participants lacking ideas about how take up the challenge of engaging in politics in Northern Ireland, the organisers had distributed ‘challenge’ cards with ideas – some reminiscent of Fr Magill’s ‘Small Steps Towards Reconciliation,’ published last year in the Irish News:

  • Ask your minister or priest to preach and teach on how your faith should engage with politics today.
  • With a few friends organise a hustings in your school or University or Town Hall.
  • Visit a church service or a church event from across the divide.
  • Read a newspaper every day for a week that is associated with the ‘other community.’
  • Write a letter of encouragement to an MLA of your choice.
  • Pray for a politician who you would never vote for until Easter. Let them know you are praying for them.
  • Pray for a church leader or a priest from the ‘other side’ and let them know you are praying for them.
  • Register and vote if you are eligible to vote in May.
  • Read ‘For God and His Glory Alone’ and ask God to give you a ‘challenge’
  • Ask your local MLA why and how he or she went into politics
  • Visit Stormont and discover more about how it ‘works’

Photos by Brian O’Neill see more photos from the event here…

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