Irish Churches launch new £1.3m peace initiative with EU help
Irish Church leaders recently launched the Irish Churches Peace Project (IC PP), aimed at promoting good relations, reconciliation and peace work at both strategic and grassroots levels across Northern Ireland and in the border counties. Leaders of the partnership Churches – the Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches, the Church of Ireland and the Irish Council of Churches – were present at the launch in Malone House, Barnett Demesne, Belfast.
They were accompanied by two Junior Ministers in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Jennifer McCann MLA and Jonathan Bell MLA , and by Jacqueline Irwin, Chief Executive Officer of the Community Relations Council.
The European Union PEAC E III -funded initiative has a total of nine staff, including its Director, Keith Hamilton, and six regionallybased Good Relations officers focusing on Fermanagh and the Border Region, Newry and Mourne, Strabane and the Northwest, Greater Belfast, Craigavon and Armagh, and Dungannon and Cookstown.
THE HAASS PROCESS
The three issues at the heart of the dialogue in Northern Ireland chaired by US diplomat, Dr Richard Haass – parades, flags and the past – involve complex and very intractable issues, but it was striking, and impressive, how Dr Haass, at the conclusion of the first round of his discussions, himself spoke of many of the problems as being “deeply human”.
Article 1 of the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – itself a short document – states a fundamental truth that surely provides a foundation for seeking a way forward in community relations in Northern Ireland: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
While the use of the term ‘brotherhood’ betrays the origin of the document as coming before the advent of more inclusive language, the essential values expressed in the Article endure as truly human, and also deeply Christian, values.
The first two of the three issues on which the Haass process is centred – parades and flags – involve the fundamental rights of people to “freedom of opinion and expression” and to “peaceful assembly” (Articles 19 and 20 respectively). In any free society, it has to be possible to organize a parade and to fly a flag. Such a statement is almost axiomatic. Yet, when one considers the fundamental human right to freedom, it soon becomes clear that when human expression causes antagonism and the concomitant danger of unrest, some constraints on that freedom become necessary, because the right of all to “security of person” (Article 3) brings another human right into the equation.
It is well known that the Parades Commission is unpopular with many, yet, when one bears in mind the tensions that can arise in the community over parading, there clearly needs to be some way of regulating parades. Perhaps it might be possible to explore a variation on the current approach, at least on a trial basis, by establishing a form of self-regulation by a cross-community Parades Panel composed, not of politicians, but of representatives of groups and bands that are directly involved in the parading culture. Such a voluntary Parades Panel could attempt to regulate parading, but if it were not able to agree on particular parades, the decision could pass to the Parades Commission which would still exist, but only as a place of last resort.
While many people do parade, those involved in that culture should be aware that many other people in Northern Ireland have no interest in parading. The cost of policing parades and of the sometimes associated riotous behaviour is considerable and causes resentment in the community at large. Self-regulation would provide an opportunity for those directly involved to show real leadership and responsibility for the cause of the common good.
Regarding flags, it is pitiable to see flags flying from lamp posts day and night for weeks and months on end. The whole spectacle is tacky and shabby in the extreme and displays an underlying sectarianism and essentially bullying mentality. Those who protest that they are simply flying the flag of their country fail to see the deeper effect their actions often are having – either that, or they do understand but do not care about anyone other than themselves and those who are like-minded. Flags are essentially a means of indicating group or national identity. In Northern Ireland, these can be very sensitive subjects which at times threaten community harmony and, for that reason, special regulations are appropriate and do need to be considered. To use any flag in a sectarian way – intentionally or unintentionally – is an affront to civilized community life.
The third area on which the Haass process is focusing is that of the past. The trauma of the Troubles is indeed, to use Dr Haass’s expression, “deeply human”, and as such requires a depth of healing that is first and foremost the domain of the caring professions, including of course ministers of the Churches.
The legacy of hurt is a legacy that is most appropriately addressed in essentially pastoral or, when necessary, clinical ways, by helping people, as individuals, who are trying to live with tragedy and hurt. Nonetheless, when last year Bishop Emmanuel Ntazinda of Rwanda told the Gazette of the situation following the 1994 mass genocide in his country, he stressed that people in Rwanda today were focusing not on the brutal past but on the future, trying to build a real unity among themselves. Similarly, in Northern Ireland, while those who are hurting must receive every care and attention, the community as a whole does need to focus not on the horrific past but on the future that all the people of Northern Ireland can build together.
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