CRC Award for Fr Gary Donegan; & Reconciliation Reframed by Rev Norman Hamilton

Fr Gary Donegan, a Passionist priest who served 15 years at Holy Cross Church in Ardoyne in North Belfast, was today honoured with the Community Relations Council (CRC) Award for Exceptional Achievement.

Rev Norman Hamilton presented the award after delivering the annual David Stevens Memorial Lecture on “Reconciliation Reframed.” The event was held in the new Houben Centre in the grounds of Holy Cross Church. You can read the lecture in full here: Stevens Lecture 13 Jan 2017 FNL Pub

Donegan was acknowledged as a priest who got out into the nooks and crannies of the streets, standing up to injustice. He received death threats for his condemnations of violence, yet could not be silenced. Donegan also facilitated behind-the-scenes talks, participated in the “Make it Work” campaign that lobbied for the Good Friday Agreement, and built enduring relationships with people of all faiths and none.

Donegan was recently moved to Tobar Mhuire in Crossgar. In his remarks after receiving the award, Donegan paid tribute to his collaborators in reconciliation and said:

“I don’t serve one community. I don’t serve one gender. I don’t serve one faith. Some of my best friends are atheists. We have to be there for everyone and make it work together.”

Hamilton served many years at Ballysillan Presbyterian in North Belfast and worked alongside Donegan to quell community tensions during the Holy Cross School dispute of 2001.

The David Stevens Memorial Lecture honours the former leader of the Corrymeela community, whose life work was devoted to promoting reconciliation on this island.

While much has been said and written over the years about reconciliation, Donegan and Hamilton’s combined witness managed to add some fresh perspectives.

In his 15 years in Ardoyne, Donegan embodied the courage that is necessary when tensions boil to the surface and erupt in violence. But he also embodied the courage that is necessary to take the everyday steps to improve relationships among people who have to go out of their way to reach out to the “other side.”

Hamilton’s lecture was especially timely given the events of recent weeks, as the Northern Ireland Government totters on the brink of collapse. Hamilton said:

“The events of the past month and especially of the last few days have taken the need for civic reconciliation to a completely new level.  Events have reframed it in a very public way, for no longer can it be largely confined to community relations work, public policy as in TBUC, or dealing with the past.  We now have the obvious need for reconciliation to be put at the heart of restoring government.  I find it striking that the language and tone of public and political discourse in recent times has been that of aggression, disillusionment, despair, scandal, horse trading, blame, counter blame, and the likelihood of weeks – perhaps even months – of negotiation.  Maybe I have missed it, but I have heard little or nothing about the common good, about apology, about trusted relationships, consensus or generosity of spirit.  That is deeply worrying – even if we accept that there is a measure of ‘rough and tumble’ in our particular brand of adversarial politics.”

Hamilton recognized that one obstacle to reconciliation is that almost no one can agree on what it means. He suggested that a helpful way round this impasse would be to clearly distinguish “civic reconciliation” from other types of reconciliation:

… when the term ‘reconciliation’ is used in politics or community relations work, it should be explicitly and consistently described as ‘civic reconciliation’.  This will distinguish it from what might be called ‘person to person’ reconciliation, where the primary – or even the main – emphasis is on the restoring of fractured relationships rather than on developing a programme, a policy, or an initiative.

Hamilton then identified two main ways civic reconciliation could be worked out:

Firstly – in ‘Political’ reconciliation – where elected leaders move to set the past aside in order to address either a new common threat or a new common opportunity. …   Key to this happening, and being accepted, is that a new generation of leaders emerges, who have no direct involvement in, or direct culpability for, past horrors.  …

Secondly – in ‘Community relations’ activities, where divided communities meet each other in order to build a better future together.  They discuss their differences, but manage to reach a position where they can work together for their shared common good, without denying the reality of difference and pain. They usually retain their own identity and re-tell their own story.   Inter church forums are often part of this type of work, alongside a multitude of community relations and community development groups.

Political and community relations activities are of course limited. Indeed, Hamilton’s civic reconciliation could be seen as a quite minimalist approach, in that it deliberately excludes individual forms of reconciliation. But Hamilton was not saying that it is not important to recognize individuals’ needs for reconciliation, or their different definitions of it. Rather, he framed civic reconciliation as a means to:

… reframe the language we use so that these differing understandings and content of reconciliation are clear all the time.  This would open the way for better public discourse around civic reconciliation to take place, without in any way compromising the need to properly recognise and honour the legitimate needs of victims and survivors.

Hamilton also advocated a policy idea – “reconciliation screening.” By that he means that “all public policy should be checked for its likely contribution to building a reconciled community.”  He said:

This is not a new idea, but it is one that has had very little ‘traction’ largely because, I suspect, there is such little enthusiasm for deep reconciliation right across our society.   But that deficit can – indeed must – be remedied, and helping to make it happen is a task and a calling for many of us in this room and in wider society.   Equality screening is very important.  I might even suggest that reconciliation screening is even more important, so that the potential for marginalisation, disillusionment and previously unidentified and unintended consequences is identified at an early stage and addressed.

So here, Hamilton recognises that reconciliation extends beyond individual and civic relationships to social, economic and political structures.  I take this to mean that all public policies should be checked to see to what extent they continue to support – and not challenge – segregation and sectarianism.

Hamilton didn’t make this particular connection, but to me it sounds like the political structures of the Northern Ireland Assembly – which only allow the votes of those who designate as “nationalist” or “unionist” to count when it must make a “key” decision – wouldn’t pass a reconciliation screening!

Hamilton’s “take home” message was that it was up to all sectors of civic society to make it clear to our politicians that we prefer civic reconciliation to tribal politics:

“There have been times when sections of wider society should have spoken, but did not do so – and I do include the faith sector in that.  Silence creates a vacuum which can be filled with obnoxious noise rather than wisdom.”

Full text of Norman Hamilton’s David Stevens lecture: Stevens Lecture 13 Jan 2017 FNL Pub

Photo of Fr Donegan by Press Eye; Photo of Rev Hamilton tweeted by Peter Osborne.

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