The debris lies strewn across streets of my home city in the aftermath of the Glorious Twelfth Day parades yesterday. Debris indeed; chunks lifted out of our peace process, as well as our pavements, and thrown at whoever we can project the blame onto. Facebook is highlighting the dearth of response from Church leaders and I feel bound to make a tiny contribution. Where do you begin though? Where will it end we ask? These are initial surmises and may need longer time to marinate so bare with me!
Maybe the first thing to say is that this is an annual event. Not just the Twelfth but the rioting. It is of course a sign that for some we are literally no further forward than we were 323 years ago, which is an awful indictment on our society. Yet, it has got to be seen for what a good part of it is; recreational rioting. In the late 90s I remember driving through the Protestant “Village” area off the Donegal Road on the afternoon after the contentious parade of that time, Drumcree. Young men sat on walls downcast. Why? Well the Parades Commission that year had allowed the Parade! The disappointment was that that had left no reason to throw bricks at the police and set fire to cars.
Now, it would be easy to go off on one right there. What kind of thugs are these? What kind of mindset... Let us stop and reflect on a city that has left its youth looking forward to a summer evening’s riot for fun and sense of meaning. There are all kinds of issues at the root of our violent outbursts and we need to be looking at social and spiritual as well as the tribal and political solutions. As a city, across our divide, we need to have a look at education and employment and many other contributing factors.
It is also easy to throw verbal abuse at the rioters with the same venom that they throw bricks. As well as the recreational purpose it gives, the disturbances also scream at us that working class Protestant communities are in a very fragile place. At a recent Clonard/Fitzroy Fellowship meeting PUP’s John Kyle shared with us many of the factors that have caused this community to feel isolated. Two of those factors, he said, were the seemingly one sided approach of the parades issue and the demonization of flute bands. For almost a century Unionist political leaders gave their community a Protestant state for a Protestant people and now that there needs to be some balancing done to bring justice across the society, parts of that community feel that they are losing everything. Whether they are right or wrong, that feeling needs to be addressed in a sensitive way. How we birth and mature a shared future for all our citizens needs very careful strategies and visionary discernment. We need to not demonise and caricature even though the scenes from last night tempt us too easily to do so. There is a vicious circle at work. The working class Protestant communities feel isolated and then kick out like a cornered animal in their frustration which in turn causes more isolation. Lack of political representation then leaves them feeling that violence is the only voice they have to get heard.
As a middle class Presbyterian from south Belfast I need to be asking about my own response? I find it very hard to understand why the tensions in a divided community should boil down to, and boil up over, a few hundred yards of road to march a band down. However, though I might not care for marching, I need to care for those who do. One of the problems for working class Protestants is that they are now not only divided from the traditional Catholic enemies but are now also far adrift from their middle class Protestant neighbours who are appalled at their behaviour. Let us realise that this isolated community need cared for if they too are going to be part of our hoped for shared future.
Which brings is to where perhaps I should be venting my anger; their leaders! At the time of the flags protests, at the turn of the year, and this marching season which was always going to be more volatile as a result, we have not seen much in the way of community or political leadership. Speeches and statements yesterday did little to prevent the violence or lead people in more constructive ways. Indeed, the enflamed speeches that stoked up, and almost legitimised the anger, were irresponsible and the statements sent out later for calm was simply a nonsense and very poor leadership.
Can I also say at this point that I don’t only mean the leadership on the Unionist side. That same Clonard/Fitzroy Fellowship had a very constructive evening with Sinn Fein’s Declan Kearney a number of weeks ago. If Sinn Fein are as keen on reconciliation and a shared future as Declan suggested, and I have to say I believed his sincerity, then they too will need to consider carefully the best ways for that equality to happen. There has always been two sides when we lived in our inequality and there needs to be two sides when we seek a future of equality. Yet, again yesterday we realised that the divisions at a political level are still vast. When our leaders at Stormont cannot negotiate and compromise how can we expect the people on the streets to.
Where are the Churches? That is a question being raised this morning on social media and it is one that needs to be answered. Professor John Brewer, heading up the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University, challenged us at one of our Faith on Trial evenings at Fitzroy recently by suggesting that though there is a prophetic presence from the Churches in the Northern Irish conflict we lack leadership presence from the Churches. What he means is that there are quite a few maverick Church men and women working below the radar to heal the divisions but that the Churches as entities from the top have made little contribution or sent out visionary alternatives. Though we in Fitzroy, where I am minister, have built up strong, helpful and very blessed relationships with Clonard Monastery on the Falls Road and St. Oliver Plunkett’s in Lenadoon I feel we are impotent to connect with inner city working class Protestant communities. If we believe that the Kingdom of God is for the well being of the city, as the Bible tells us, I need to be asking how can we begin to engage again? Can the Churches across the divide show a better example of compromise and shared future than our political leaders?
In whatever area of leadership we are called to it will take courage. Some might lose votes. Some might be called heretics. As this has all been happening I have been back studying the Gospels for an autumn/winter sermon series on John. I have been more acutely aware than ever that the only way to beat the darkness was for the light to suffer, to give up comfort and rights and to be prepared to be sacrificed for the good of the world. Jesus has asked us to follow him into the pain of bringing redemption. He asks us to take up our cross daily, deny ourselves and follow him into the bringing on earth of God’s Kingdom. What does that look like in Northern Ireland? It doesn’t sound anything like yesterday’s speeches. It doesn’t look anything like yesterday’s events. For many the Churches might actually be a huge part of the problem. As I caress and collide the newspaper and website pictures and reports of the Twelfth with the words I have been reading in the Gospels I am more convinced than ever that a radical reassessment of what Jesus was on about, how he lived, died and was raised to life, and the life that should enable his followers to live should not exasperate the problem but should be our only hope and vision.