Careless, bull in a China shop politics – By Peter Osborne

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The years from 1918 to 1922 shaped Ireland, North and South, for a hundred years.

The next five years may just do the same.

While Northern Ireland stands at another crossroads, potentially the most significant since partition, it is being let down by immature, bull-in-a-china-shop politics, that has already fractured a vulnerable political process. It is careless politics which could further shatter relationships and the ambition of the peace process.

Referring to 1918 and the end of the Great War, Winston Churchill wrote of the ‘integrity’ of the quarrel in Ireland, a phrase I used recently to open a panel discussion on Grace and Generosity at Feile an Phobail.

It was also used by An Taoiseach at Queen’s University on his first official visit to Northern Ireland: he said:,

“To cling to what Churchill memorably described – a century ago – as the integrity of our quarrel.”

We should remember that Churchill believed we needed to walk together in mutual comprehension.”

Within the phrase lies a dilemma and challenge – over the years of peaceful or violent conflict in Ireland, all sides have thought justness and righteousness, morality and logic, and that God (where they believe) is with them.

Does the integrity within the quarrel provide legitimacy, and therefore strength, to both unionism and republicanism to reach out or does it mean that they both need to stay separate and insular because if they take small steps towards the other they may start to recognise virtue in them?

This may be why a lack of grace still defines political dialogue in the region; why bull-in-a-china-shop behaviour resonates, repels and fascinates all at the same time.

For those on all sides that indulge in the behaviour it may be better and easier.

Better to demonise and distort the arguments of others rather than engage with them.

Easier because you don’t have to look at your own reflection in the mirror and ask honestly what you see.

A common theme from the panel on Generosity and Grace was how similar were the needs of working class communities across Belfast.  There was a shared past of poverty, under-achievement and lack of hope. Yet, in 2017 these needs still take a back seat to the call to action, the ancestral drums and bugle calls, and to a fear of losing.

The panel concluded we need to share all our stories, beliefs and narratives. We need to care enough to listen and understand. There is a desire for sharing and caring, listening and understanding to start a healing process where people most in need reconfigure what they have in common and what can be gained together.

By doing that, as we get closer to understanding the integrity of what others believe, we get closer to reconciling each to the other and we get closer to realising that over the next 100 years we can, and will, share this part of the island with integrity.

That would be a place worth visiting; a place where young people feel it is worth staying; where a state of grace exists with acts of generosity and good will freely given and equally freely accepted.

Who has the strength to do that? Not the bull in the china shop – he is too busy breaking and dissembling to care or share.


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About Author

Peter has worked in community cohesion, good relations and community enablement for over 20 years, running Rubicon Consultants. Peter chairs the Community Relations Council Peter is a Northern Ireland Committee member of the BIG Lottery Fund. He is a voluntary Director of the Extern and Extern Ireland organisation, Peter chaired the Parades Commission from 2010-2013. Peter served as an elected member of Castlereagh Borough Council for 12 years from 1993-2005. He is a former Chair of the Alliance Party, 1999-2001. Peter co-founded and chaired for the first seven years, Landmark East, a large property-based social enterprise in East Belfast with an asset base of c. £3 million.

1 Comment

  1. George Buckley on

    Carelessnes is a good description Peter, the inability to get past a muscle memory response to entrenched views and opinions. These beliefs have been fashioned in isolation from those whom we live alongside. Living in separate areas, attending different schools, even following different sporting activities and pastimes. Cultural identity, history and religion add to the difficulties and ensure that already diverse communities remain apart.
    In such a toxic atmosphere, it’s vital that opportunities to bridge the gap are grasped. Sadly, our representatives, by the very nature of their career path are dependant on an electoral system which rewards those who emphasise the differences, “I’ll fight your corner. Vote for me!”And we do, in our tens of thousands and this mandate becomes the cement that prevents change, risk, compromise – “grace,” in the face of difference.
    How do you break a cycle which sneers at the middle ground? It’s difficult.

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