The following reflections are inspired by Steve Stockman’s “An Open Letter to Northern Ireland’s Political Leaders” (PS September 2015) and Esmond Birnie’s response.
The central issue raised by Stockman and Birnie, is whether there is a distinctively Christian input on issues debated in the public arena. Birnie, seems to disagree with Stockman’s conclusion that all polticians are prone to selfish and partisan behaviour irrespective of the kind of political framework and institutions in which they have to operate. He implies that Northern Ireland politics has been prone to “periodic crisis”, in contrast with politics, say, in “London, Dublin, Washington or Berlin”, because of the political institutions as set up by the 1998 peace-process, with slight modifications in 2007.
Birnie argues further that one main reason why politics in Northern Ireland have been in continual crisis of one kind or another is because “we have pursued a ‘peace at all costs’ so called peace process”, resulting in “moral compromises in order to keep everyone talking, to keep all parties at the table and the room.” This preoccupation with “peace at all costs”, he contends, has forced Northern Ireland politicians to ignore the fundamental issues on which they legitimately disagree. He cites as an example the disagreement about “austerity” fiscal policies by the Government since 2010 and seems to castigate Irish Church leaders for their anti-austerity stance in a statement made last year.
Birnie is right to highlight the strong pro-and-anti austerity views held by economists, financial experts, politicians, those concerned with social welfare and church leaders. But his implied conclusion, that one particular view on “austerity”can be shown to more morally acceptable than the opposite stance, seems to me to be questionable. I have keenly followed the debate on “austerity” over recent years, and depending on one’s basic economic and political assumptions, both pro-and anti “austerity” arguments seem to have moral case. If one’s primary concern is to eliminate annual public expenditure deficit and thereby seeking to reduce the total public debt, then austerity policies must be followed, irrespective of social costs (such as increase in child poverty and inexcusable hardships caused to many weak and vulnerable sections of our society). But the alternative view that such social consequences can be minimised, if not totally avoided, by slowing the pace with which austerity policies are pursued, also seems to be morally justifiable. Greece can be cited as an example against the pursuance of very stringent austerity economic policies at very fast pace!
Those who advocate “austerity” at any cost sometimes refer to the current total UK public debt (just over 80% of the GDP) and argue that such an amount is not only morally but also economically unviable. Against this view I may cite the total US public debt, which stands currently at 300% of the US GDP. Yet very few economists and politicians seem to argue that US economy is in any kind of serious danger.
Birnie takes Stockman to task for trying “to ‘triangulate’ or exercise a third way or moral equivalence” because, he argues, in reality there are “important differences of principle about the economy, about law and order”. This implies that one set of principles can be shown to be morally superior to any other set of principles. But as the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has demonstrated (1) this is only possible on the basis of certain basic starting premises. The argument between opposite sides is, however, interminable because there is no way of deciding between the conflicting starting premises.
Given such an impasse on most important economic, moral, political, and social issues Christians surely have a duty to seek a distinctively Christian third way which may help bring about some resolutions of the conflicts by appealing to a much broader section of the populace. Is this not what is required if Christians are to be light and salt in the world – if they are to follow Paul’s injunction, “Do not conform any longer in the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”? Of course, any such third way must be based on distinctively Christian principles and teachings. And this will require very hard reflection in the light of the teachings of the Bible and Christian traditions, on the part of Christians, both individually and collectively.
(1) After Virtue. Pub Duckworth ; 3rd Revised edition edition (June 2007).