There is an eerie sense of concern across our society – tiny eruptions suggest a bubbling lava waiting to explode. Sometimes I wonder if that feeling is because we are all still too connected emotionally to the past. Watching the 14 days documentary on Monday night past I experienced emotion which was followed by memory. It seemed irrational; more rational to remember first those daily experiences of the Troubles and then to feel emotion and the weight of those days. I was reminded that often our memory is emotion – we feel before we describe and know before we acknowledge. Perhaps that explains the sense of concern. Emotion before remembering that I am not living in the 1980s; feeling before the memory of an agreement signed all but a few weeks short of 15 years ago.
Yet there is, I believe, a need for concern. The tasks are before us, unresolved tasks related to our past. The arrest of anti peace process republicans in Derry and loud declarations for God and Ulster; talk of unionist unity and the moral bankruptcy of Sinn Fein – what year is this? Are we slipping back in language and behaviour and in thought? Is what we have achieved secure or is there much to be done which we have left undone?
In his book Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation In Divided Societies John Paul Lederach suggests what he defines as a modest proposal for the endurance of a peace once secured. He writes:
Building peace in today’s conflicts calls for long-term commitment to establishing an infrastructure across the levels of a society, an infrastructure that empowers the resources for reconciliation from within that society and maximizes the contribution from outside. In short, constructing the house of peace relies on a foundation of multiple actors and activities aimed at achieving reconciliation. pxvi
Has this, then, been the focus across our society? Lederach is suggesting that if it has not then those eerie fears might become reality.
The challenge here is to move away from responses to crisis moments as the focus and towards the creation of an interwoven framework of relationships throughout society, both across levels and up and down between levels, in order to weave a stable framework out of which decisions and choices can be made.
The crisis management method runs against a relational way of working. The spaces in between crises are not used to develop the framework of relationships but rather as breathing spaces, pauses along the way to draw breath before the next crisis. These crises are well rehearsed – flag protests and equality in decision-making, maintaining strong identities and a sense of security, parades and protests, dissidents on both sides, pipe bombs and riots and policing and prison reform. All of these make up the transitional ground on which we stand and require transitional processes in which society has been engaged. But the success of the transitional processes is in question and protests and parades and decisions and unrest erupt with a familiarity to all of us who lived through the Troubles. At the same time, and with an almost bizarre scent of normality, bedroom tax and abortion laws and housing and poverty and environmental and education issues are under debate. But somehow the seepage of unfinished tasks has a stench to it that creates unease. The stench is of the festering issues that remain from the past. They haunted us in the past and are in our faces as we look to Republican Easter commemorations and Unionist processions and parades.
The reactive processes in which society engages, the emotion before thought reaction, suggests that we have not built the necessary relational frameworks to sustain the peace and that there is some urgency to get it done. The basics are there – there are people who move up and down and across society weaving the filigree threads of that framework. But a more robust and embedded framework is required. It will require politicians who are prepared to give up an identity made by standing on the shoulders of others. It will require a new politics which has its own depth, a clear argument and purpose and a willingness to refuse to stir hatred in order to get votes. It will require that an inclusive view of society is taken, of victims across the board, of a peace that acknowledges the mess that was our past, of decision-making that expects equality and openness and good will and a commitment to each other on this part of the Island. It will require the people at the top to ask party members and representatives to go out and make the networks locally, not cutting out some and including others but taking account of all who populate the community. It will require churches and schools and local traders and businesses and community organizations to operate together, strategically developing strong communities which are intent on doing away with competition, a carving up of resources and a sharing out of what there is, in the interests of best and quality service and practice. The framework can only be properly robust when all across society there is a sense of responsibility to make peace work and to move towards reconciliation. It will not be robust when there is competition or a playing out of the old wars.
Lederach suggests this is a modest proposal. I would suggest that it sounds simple, maybe even like the soft option. But in actual fact it requires focus and energy and dedication to do the hard yards of listening and learning and articulating in a new and more passionate way for the good of the whole society and each and every one of its members. Playing politics with each other and with every issue and task breaks the framework down and makes peace unsustainable. It doesn’t mean walking away from moral standards but it does mean opening a space into which others can step so as to change. It becomes a mutual movement towards a more reconciled society in which peace can be sustained.
The apostle Paul described this as:
not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. Philippians 2:4
As a wise colleague said to me – if we all look out for each other’s interests then everyones interests are looked after.