Belfast Telegraph

Do we have to wait until there is a crisis before we reach out across the divide?

By Alf McCreary

Earlier this month, the beautiful Christ Church building in Londonderry was badly damaged and desecrated by intruders who left a trail of destruction behind them.

There was widespread consternation in Northern Ireland in general and in Derry in particular that this kind of sacrilege could still take place, after all we have been through.

Messages of sympathy were sent to members of the Christ Church parish, and on the next Sunday a number of community representatives came to the church to express their solidarity and sympathy in person.

They included nationalists and republican politicians, and leaders of their communities, and they were made most welcome.

This is the kind of cross-community respect and concern we show in Northern Ireland when something appalling takes place, such as wanton damage to a place of worship.

In 2002, I experienced this at first hand when my own church, Whitehouse Presbyterian, was almost completely destroyed. However, within three years a beautiful new structure rose from the ashes with the help of the congregation and neighbouring Protestant and Catholic churches, and many other people from much further afield.

Perhaps it is only when you are in such a situation that you realise how important it is to get in touch with other people who may be suffering in similar circumstances.

The reaction of the people in Derry to the latest sacrilege to a church has shown that ordinary people still have respect for one another in Northern Ireland when it counts,

It also begs the question as to why we seem to have so little respect for each other in non-crisis, everyday situations.

This is most evident among the politicians of our main parties on both sides who evidently cannot stand one another, despite their public posturing.

Republicans who prattle on about an alleged unionist lack of respect for their community are equally guilty of lack of respect for their opponents.

Talk about republican"alligators" and unionists "born out of wedlock" - to put it politely - should have no place in our public dialogue.

Every day there is evidence of a lack of respect on the airwaves of BBC Radio Ulster where some chat show guests and callers have little regard for others, and seem intent only on shouting out their views.

Sometimes I wonder if these talk shows make the situation better by allowing people to sound-off in this way, or merely perpetuate the conflict and make it worse.

Respect has to be earned and, once lost, it is difficult to retrieve, particularly in Northern Ireland where people have long memories and where they so often seem to go out of their way to be offended.

Despite all of this, we still have much in common, and much for which to be thankful, and for which to show mutual respect .

I often think of Derry as the litmus paper of the Troubles. Our divisions were so tragically apparent during the Siege of Derry; the first civil rights marches in Derry gained world attention, as did Bloody Sunday and the vindication in the Saville Report of those killed.

Derry now seems settled and at relative peace with itself, apart from some worrying low-level dissident paramilitary activity, and the damage to property - some of which may also be due to sheer hooliganism.

During this summer I took a day trip to Derry from Belfast, with my young grandson. It was his first-ever visit to Derry, and he was impressed.

So was I, as a veteran of the early Derry troubles, the Bloody Sunday funerals, and much else besides.

I marvelled at the so-normal atmosphere, the international tourists, the busy shops, and a tour of Derry Walls with an excellent guide called Garvan who clearly loves his city.

It reminded me of how far we have come, and how much we have to lose if we cannot make the peace process work.

Clearly, there is still respect on both sides, away from the politicians' rantings - but why does it take something like the desecration of a church in Derry to help us to show this mutual respect in public?

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