The BBC’s Fergal Keane recently filed a report from South Africa where he recalls how few people, in the closing days of Apartheid, had much hope for the country, most expecting it to be torn apart by a bloody race war. No one imagined that within a decade, South Africa would be a successful non-racial democracy.

Before 2003, it was popular to compare two Middle Eastern countries – one with vast oil fields, plentiful water, fertile land, and an energetic population; the other, a small, parched, desert country with no water, little fertile land, and a sedentary population.  Contrary to expectations, the first country – Iraq – was a poverty-stricken mess, while the other – Jordan – was stable and peaceful.

In each case, what made the difference was leadership. Nelson Mandela had a vision for a non-racial country which could move beyond its history of hatred and oppression. Jordan’s King Hussein was driven by a vision of a peaceful, tolerant nation which would be a force for good in a troubled region, while Saddam Hussein squandered the hand he was dealt, seeing his country as simply a playground for his family and supporters.

Visionary leadership trumped the facts on the ground.

Having returned to Northern Ireland after several years’ absence, I can see the positive changes since the dark days – the ceasefires, Good Friday Agreement, devolved Government, street cafes, the weather…. Visionary leadership on both sides played a part in these societal changes, and I was looking forward to raising my teenagers in a place which had moved beyond its divided past.  However, the flag protests, this summer’s marching troubles, and the reactions and explanations of our political leaders have left me surprised and demoralised. I’m the middle class Christian from South Belfast that Steve Stockman describes here, who no longer understands the strength of feeling of working class Protestant communities for sectarian cultural symbols.

I don’t have a voice into inner city Belfast, so I’ve listened for those who do. Is is true that low levels of education and bleak job prospects leave young people with nothing to hope for, and excuse the recent violence and hopelessness?  I know people in other countries who would give their right arm for the opportunities in Belfast’s deprived areas. Free education, in English! Free text books! A fair system where examiners don’t need bribing. A passport (either one!) which gives the ability to travel and work throughout the world. People in troubled, inner-city Belfast have more advantages and chances than most.

We need to say this. We need leaders with a vision, to help people see over the fences and peace walls to the exciting, dynamic world beyond, instead of focusing on traditional routes, flapping cloth and ‘threatened’ cultures. We need leadership from the Churches, encouraging those who claim to be religious to follow in the humble, self-emptying, sacrificial, radical footsteps of Christ, and not to be so concerned about rights and traditions.

We need leaders courageous enough to risk votes and popularity. Mandela and King Hussein made a difference because they had a vision they believed in, and were able to lead others into realizing that vision.

Stephen McIlwaine

Stephen McIlwaine is an engineer who lived and worked for 13 years in the Middle East.  He is now based in Belfast and is an elder in Fitzroy Presbyterian Church.