Earlier this month shortly after his installation, the new Moderator of the Presbyterian Church was criticized for using the term “the other side” when referring to Sinn Fein in his first interview on Good Morning Ulster. I don’t want to add to the criticism, as I have never appeared on that programme without a script in front of me. But the phrase “the other side” cuts deep into the nature of politics in this province. and perhaps the fundamental form of politics that we have in modern western democracy.
The assembly we elected in May is ostensibly one where power is shared (or at least shared-out), but it is based on a mindset where two sides do not trust each other to govern for the good of all. That may be true of the oppositional politics in Westminster and elsewhere, but here, almost everything can be divided between 2 sides: politics, faith, education, sport, language. So if Stormont is ever to be more than a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people, then we DO need mechanisms to ensure that the 2 sides work together, especially where the leader of a prominent party on one side, publically describes the voters for a party on the other side as “scum.” But it might be argued that a permanent mandatory coalition simply displaces the “oppositional” mindset into other avenues. producing standoffs between departments, and, at times, between minister and committee. However, we cannot afford the luxury of this. We have especially seen the cost of it in terms of education and health, but it has the danger of impacting on every area of public policy.
To that end, I believe we need to find different structures for the Assembly. Some argue for some form of formal “opposition”. but I am not sure how we can have that AND a situation where people vote on strict sectarian lines.
Whatever political structures we have, however, in the church we must be political without being sucked into sectarian or even, I would argue, party, politics. We need to learn to speak not only for “our side” but also those who are being failed by politicians on all sides.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, standing in as guest editor of the New Statesman recently wrote a piece critical of some of the policies of the ruling coalition in Westminster (although if truth be told he was also critical of the Labour Party too). He was urging those in power to think again, particularly in relation to the effects of unmandated policy shifts on the poor and vulnerable in society. If we are going to be on anyone’s side then we should be on their side. and that includes those who feel, at times that they have been marginalised and re-victimised by the political/peace process in this province.
My thoughts go back to that “strawy epistle” James, where it says
“If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (ch 1:26-27 )
Perhaps we could paraphrase that in 3 points:
- Watch what you say, whether in the media or not
- God’s priorities are the poor and powerless
- And don’t play by the world’s rules.
David Campton is the Methodist Minister in Ballybeen, Dundonald