Post Conference Retreat

Dominic O’Reilly is a SDLP Member and attended the party’s recent conference

I am a mess of contradictions! Some years ago I took the decision to join a political party. Meanwhile for the last fifteen years I have been actively involved in youth ministry within the Church. To the extent that some eight years ago I entered studies for the diocesan priesthood. While I did not see this through to completion it was an incredibly fruitful time and period of growth for me.

Part of my work within youth ministry involves the facilitation and delivery of retreat programmes to young people in primary and post primary school. I love retreat days. I’ve been on day retreats, weekend retreats, weeklong retreats, silent retreats and more. I love the experience of facilitating a retreat and getting to know the people I am privileged to minister to and to see how such a person can change within the course of an afternoon or series of days. A retreat day exists within a bubble of sorts. The act of retreat is one of coming away from your usual day to day activities, to reflect on your life and direction, to ask questions of those facilitating the day and hopefully being able to walk away from the day with a sense of purpose, having gleaned some truth that you can bring into your future. Ultimately at the end of the retreat day one should be able to move ever closer to those around them – whomever they may be.

Having joined the SDLP approximately five years ago the spring conference is a day I rather enjoy. In some ways the conference day is like a retreat day. We have input from a variety of speakers, the day is facilitated by a number of spokespersons, there is opportunity to ask questions and at the end of the day the delegates/participants leave (hopefully) with a renewed sense of purpose in their political direction and interest. It must be noted though that the conference also exists within a bit of a bubble. We the delegates are among like minded folk who have made the conscious decision and effort to be there. Each of us is there out of conviction. No one is forced to be there and just like a retreat day; you get out of the day what you are willing to put in.

Of course the day is filled with much social media interest as we tweet and Instagram our favourite moments of the day. At my first conference two years ago I absolutely plagued my followers and Facebook friends with post after post of how fantastic the day was. This year I limited myself to a few posts and took a more concerted effort to participate actively in the day through voting on the various motions, hearing where other people are coming from and eventually getting up to speak on a particular motion; something I did not anticipate doing. There is a fantastic buzz about the conference days; we have the opportunity to discuss great ideas. There are new ideas generated in the mind and we can critique ideas which we do not agree with. There are speeches made by the vibrant, charismatic and ever maturing party leadership of Colum Eastwood and Nichola Mallon.

Why shouldn’t we engage with such a day?

Needless to say once the conference is over and I return home, I check my social media outlets and see the backlash which comes with such a day. The bubble is well and truly bust. Do I feel deflated though? Not in the slightest. Quite the opposite in fact. In a time of political polarisation and on the part of some – lazy politics – I believe more strongly than ever in the message being promoted and the goal being pursued by the SDLP. With the variety of motions being debated yesterday there was a real sense of a new way of looking at politics and there is a real opportunity to move forward in a positive direction.

A clear example of this was brought forward by Leah Rea of SDLP Youth who called on conference to vote in favour of tighter restrictions being implemented against pay day loans that would make it illegal to offer a loan that stipulates an APR above 100% and a ban on advertising pay day loans. A simple solution to ending something which is an absolute calumny on our society and which is driving people further into a spiral of debt and poverty. The motion passed of course.

Another moment of real poignancy took place during the session on social justice with a motion calling on conference to reaffirm our opposition to the Welfare Reform (NI) Order 2015 and the Welfare Reform and Work (2016) Act. My own local councillor Laura Devlin spoke powerfully on this issue.

Now of course there is opportunity during conference for healthy debate. For instance should we support the legalisation of medicinal cannabis. Personally I agree with this though I love hearing from others who do not take this view. This is how we learn and grow. This is reflective of our pluralist multi cultural society. As the world turns respectful and engaged debate is a good thing.

In the last analysis I am quite certain that regardless of our political persuasion there is more that unites us than divides us. At the end of the day we are stuck with each other. We absolutely have to make this place work. There is no other way around it. I am amazed when I consider how far my parent’s generation brought us. The signing of the Good Friday Agreement was a monumental moment that cannot be downplayed. It offered something radical – shared peace is not the end goal but rather the path we tread.

I ask: what did years of violence in our land accomplish? What did the riots of recent years deliver? What did bombing, maiming and destruction build? As Tacitus said of Rome, “They made a desert, and called it Peace”. Only when we have reduced this land to total rubble and eliminate all life from it can there be a total peace. I thank God for the Good Friday Agreement, for those who wrote the agreement and those who ratified it.

As I sit in my post conference bliss I hope that I can be – what Bobby Kennedy would call – a ripple of hope. I pray that our people and those in positions of governance can be ripples of hope in ways however small and seemingly insignificant. That we would openly try not to bind up the wounds of the past but to heal them. To tear down the walls of oppression and segregation and to act to improve the lot of those around us; the poor, the marginalised, the disenfranchised, the dissenters and yes, even the extremists.

Extremism is all around us and this is a real cause for concern but there are also radicals around us. There are some who use the term “radical” as something negative, but I can’t help but think we are in need of something radical right now. William Wilberforce was called radical. Martin Luther King was considered dangerous. Dorothy Day was thought of as a mere troublemaker and Robert F Kennedy himself was referred to as ruthless.

Kennedy would later say “We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear – only a common desire to retreat from each other – only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers.”

The time has come to be passionate radical advocates. What should we advocate? That all are created equal and that we should afford every person the same level of dignity, care and love we desire. All of us. There is more to unite us than divide us and the time has come to achieve that level of maturity in addressing this. It was clear from yesterday’s conference that the SDLP is willing, ready and able to take up the task ahead of us once more. Let’s rediscover the joy of politics and great potential that presently exists! The retreat day is over – let’s take a step closer to each other. As Colum Eastwood told us yesterday:

“I’m not going to speak about what has gone before – I’m only going to speak about what should come next.”

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.