In recents weeks there have been various outbursts from our Northern Ireland politicians. Nothing new there I hear you say. You are sadly too right. Like the differences in dress code between the high street and a French beach there seems to me mysterious disconnect when it comes to the tone and choice of words politicians use in public debate with their opponents. Manners and civility seem to be left at the door as vicious visceral attacks become not only acceptable but seemingly good politics.
In recent weeks I have surmised at length why it seems that Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland are more rude, racist and crude in their debating than their nationalist counterparts. There are regular sniggers of condescending laughter in the chamber and on the media. Nationalists on the other hand, and particularly Sinn Fein, seem to have been to charm school. It would appear that in general they have a strategic approach to come across as more moderate, tolerant and respectful. Without doubt that charm is for political gain. So I beg the question what is it in a Protestant, Unionist tradition that commends such abusive language? Where does it come from?
It would be another generalisation, but not off the mark, to say that evangelical Christianity has a major influence in Unionism. Some Unionist politicians have been asked to leave their religion at the door of the chamber at Stormont. I personally will stand for their right to take their beliefs into the chamber just as an atheist or agnostic MLA brings their beliefs in with them; belief in no God is still a belief and that belief informs your politics. I would though appreciate it if the Christian politicians were as keen to bring their Christian behavioural patterns into the chamber with them too. I want to challenge them to speak in ways that do not betray the beliefs some of them adamantly hold.
In Mark Greene’s book Fruitfulness on the Frontline, Greene gives wisdom to the public or private debater. He quotes John Wyatt, Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics at University College London, who he watched in a heated but gracious debate about abortion. Wyatt spoke of his inspiration Christian preacher and writer John Stott: -
“One of the things I learned from John Stott was that it is often more important how you debate than whether you win the argument - we’re to model dialogue and double listening (listening humbly and reverently to God’s Word and listening humbly and attentively to the world). The other thing I remember him saying is that it’s important to engage with our opponents best arguments and not their worst. So rather than creating a straw man and then destroying it - which is what so-called public debate is all about - there should be a genuine quest for dialogue and understanding.”
It is good advice for all of us. It would be wonderful if it was taken up in what often looks like the school yard behaviour in Stormont. I was one of 888 who today re-Tweeted the phrase, “The biggest problem is that we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply”It is time for genuine gracious, generous, dare I say Christian skills in debating coming out of the Unionist Protestant community. In the meantime as a church minister within that community I need to be digging deep into the marrow to ask what within the fibre of the Northern Irish Protestant soul has given rise to such ignorant behaviour being acceptable.