For many weeks there has been a sense of doom. Anyone I had spoken to who was close to the events of parades and politics were prophesying the unravelling of our peace process. The tensions in places of contentious parades like Twaddell Avenue, in Belfast’s Ardoyne, had so escalated that it was causing fracture in the top echelons of Stormont. In the end it was one of the quietest and most peaceful Twelfths in many a long year. What could have possibly been one of our darkest days might actually have been the day when a foundation was laid for a brighter future. When we were giving out about the lack of leadership in politics, community groups and the Orange Order many of the very people we were criticising were actually working hard to keep a lid on our city’s deeply rooted tensions. Fair play to them, they need our respect and praise.
There was one moment on the TV news over the weekend which was brief but not fleeting. It has lingered with me and given me an insight to some of the work going on in our communities that I believe has reaped the harvest of a peaceful Twelfth. It was at the frontline at Twaddell Avenue and as the parade was dispersing a women wearing a union jack hat approached Rev. Mervyn Gibson and goes off on one about those who have refused to let the Orange Lodges march back home down past the shops on the Crumlin Road. You could sense her anger. Mervyn leaned in and listened graciously and intently and gave an almost pastoral word before she left.
Now, any reader of Soul Surmise will know that I have been a critic of the Orange Order and at times Mervyn Gibson, my fellow Presbyterian minister. Many people over the past year have approached me to give off about something Mervyn has said on television or at the Twaddell Protest Camp. Mervyn and I recently met and had a lengthy exchange of opinions. For me it was important to try to come to terms with how the Orange Order’s actions in general and at the Twaddell Protest in particular was helpful to the witness of Christ.
I want to bring one thing out of that conversation that I believe I saw in action in that piece of news footage and that I believe might have played a major role in the peaceful Twelfth. Mervyn’s argument to me was that he is playing a peacemaking role in the community that he has a voice in. Of course for me I see peacemaking as bringing the two side of our community together. The stand off at Twaddell seems an antithesis of that. Mervyn sees his role as a step before that kind of peacemaking. His job, as I understood him, was to put a lid on the anger that is very real in the working class loyalist community he ministers in. Many have declared that the vehemence of flags protest of the last eighteen months and the Twaddell protest in its wake is a cry for help from a working class Protestant community that feel isolated and left behind in the new Northern Ireland. Whether we agree is beside the point. It is a genuine sense of deep alienation.
Who responds to that cry for help? Who rolls up their sleeves and gets stuck into bringing a sense of sense of confidence and calm to that volatile situation? Who listen to those who are discontent? Who speaks for them and attempts to articulate their cry? Am I pontificating across town from my leafy middle class suburbs making any kind of contribution? My respect for Mervyn throughout the past year, even when I was heavily critical, has been that he is connecting on the ground. After our recent conversation I had many reservations about Mervyn’s idea that he was in anyway a peacemaker. However, when the Twelfth Day passed off so peacefully I began to think again. When I watched that little news clip I saw his words to me becoming flesh in a difficult neighbourhood.
So, I want to give credit where credit is due. I want to commend Rev Mervyn Gibson and the many other community leaders like PUP’s John Kyle for what they have achieved this last weekend. There will be times when they speak into those communities that they feel drawn to, and I know need leadership, when they will use phrases and speeches that I find hard to reconcile but I need to be perhaps a little more forgiving and see their long term aim. I would now ask of Mervyn and those other community and political leaders, on both sides, to use this hard earned peace space to build something much more. It will be one thing to put a lid on the dangerous sectarianism and another to push forward to a shared future. In the meantime, even though I will continue to critique I will do so with a little more understanding, a lot more encouragement and a significant amount of prayer.