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Protocol debate no place for public figures to sneer at those they disagree with

Archbishop John McDowell


Polarisation has grown since the Irish Sea border was created. It is incumbent on us all to try and ease tensions, writes Archbishop John McDowell

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Opposition: A recent loyalist protest against the Brexit protocol

Opposition: A recent loyalist protest against the Brexit protocol

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

A recent protest in east Belfast against the NI Protocol

A recent protest in east Belfast against the NI Protocol

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Opposition: A recent loyalist protest against the Brexit protocol

I can’t remember a more difficult or more polarised moment in Northern Ireland or in the relationships between the UK and Ireland over the past 20 years. The friction and the drama have many causes, but events have come together to create a moment of real jeopardy.

The issue which is acting as a symbol for wider community and international tension at the moment is the protocol. The origins of the protocol are relatively straightforward, but it has become fantastically complex in its development and the range of ills now being attributed to it, or threatened in consequence of it.

Very few people will have the time or the expert knowledge to master the detail of the protocol.

But it is, by its very objectives, tied to the 1998 Agreement. As such, it is a great pity that it has provoked a degree of partisanship which now seems to militate against a consensual outcome.

But the debates around Brexit and the protocol do not stray far from questions of peace, political stability or constitutional futures.

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My own instinct is that it might be wiser at this time to reflect for a moment on how, as a society that has to live in this small space, we might approach the current challenges together, rather than choosing between what have become a rather rigid set of narratives and fixes. 

As a disciple of Jesus Christ who also happens to be a Church leader, the principal questions which I need to ask myself at this time are: “How will what I do or say express my discipleship of Jesus Christ?” And: “How will it contribute to the common good?”

Church leaders are not party political figures, nor are we the accredited representatives of any political community.

I would guess that the majority of Church of Ireland people in Northern Ireland are unionists of one sort or another and most Church of Ireland people in the Republic of Ireland are broadly nationalist.

Probably there is also a substantial minority (particularly) of under-40s in both jurisdictions who would class themselves as ‘neither’ or ‘other’. Fortunately there are a large number of elected representatives from political parties or political communities who are able and willing to speak for all these groups.

So, as a Church leader, I do not speak for, with, or to the Church, or to broader society in that way.

It is not for me as a Church leader to parade the political affiliation of Church of Ireland people in those terms.

In many ways their political or constitutional affiliation is none of my business. This alignment of denominational and political affiliation has been a feature of our history and has only succeeded in making many in society suspicious of where the Church’s conclusive loyalty really lies. In doing so, it has impeded the Church’s usefulness in the world and has at times also cheapened the Gospel and its implications.

The God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ is not a unionist or a nationalist, or a ‘neither’.

He is the Sovereign Lord of all peoples, a God of justice and generosity, who desires the good of all. For those of us whose Churches are organised on an all-island basis, this is especially important to remember.

Brexit, the issue which created the need for a protocol, has been undoubtedly divisive throughout the UK. Yet there is only one place where those divisions are seen as threatening violent disruption and social disintegration.

This is particularly so because shadowy groups who once had some electoral credibility, but who have now re-transitioned to their core competencies of drug dealing, extortion and oppressing their own communities, are trying to exert political pressure via their proxies.

Perhaps it is important that opinion from the shadows is brought into the open; perhaps not. In any case, there will always be something of the night about it.

In contrast, in a functioning democratic society the views expressed by trade bodies, academics, businesspeople, and even Church people, are necessarily heard — those whose purpose is simply to inform from a base of knowledge or evidence, rather than to campaign. It is vital that their freedom to speak is respected and protected.

Of course, nothing can stop the poisoned imaginations behind anonymous Twitter accounts, but there should be no place for sneering asides from public figures towards those whose evidence doesn’t align with a particular narrative. That leads only to a nervous discussion and a shrivelled public space.

Northern Ireland has always had an electoral democracy, but it has not always had a democratic culture.

Democracy in its fullest sense is not like parenthood, automatically passed on to the next generation.

The fundamentals are easy to forget, not least around what other generations called “civility”; fairness and transparency in public debate. It is an insidious form of barbarism to say that “politics is a rough old game” and therefore “anything goes”.

The web of relationships and internalised decencies which make good societies work is much easier to unravel than to knit.

Brexit and the protocol will continue to affect different parts of these islands in different ways and to provoke different fears from different quarters.

We need to be very careful about what we say and what we listen to in these matters.

Above all, we need to focus on what is our common interest in the here and now so that we might avoid what would divide us even more painfully in the future.

John McDowell is the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland


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