Alf McCreary: Easter message of hope is not just for the church-goers, it's for all those who want the best for Northern Ireland

Easter is a time for hope and renewal and this weekend the churches will be crowded with thousands of worshippers witnessing the most important celebrations in the annual Christian calendar.
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It is also a weekend for people from all backgrounds to share in family meetings, meals, holidays and festivities of all kinds including the rolling of Easter eggs which, ironically, has derivations from non-Christian sources down the mists of history.

Sadly in Northern Ireland, however, there is a darker dimension with the commemoration of the Easter uprising of 1916 which in turn becomes an excuse for a minority of militant republicans in Londonderry to demonstrate that civil disturbances are still part of life in this province which has witnessed too much division and distress.

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Easter also marks the beginning of the marching season by the loyal orders who also bear witness to their own culture and their allegiance to Reformation theology.

Alf McCrearyAlf McCreary
Alf McCreary

Not all the marchers appreciate the finer details of such Biblical interpretations, and while for many in the ranks this is an excuse for a day out, there are others for whom Protestantism is a part of their core Christian witness.

Our need for progress and a shared future has become more urgent following the restoration of Stormont after a long wilderness of absence during which many of our essentials of community life, including the NHS, education and other crucial services have reached crisis point.

Not surprisingly the return to Stormont has its usual quota of implacable critics within unionism, but a majority of people across the province are hard-headed enough to realise that no agreement delivers 100 percent to all sides.

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The hard reality is that rebuilding the structure and necessities of daily life here is more important than arguing endlessly about the finer points of constitutional status.

Easter is one of the most important celebrations in the annual Christian calendarEaster is one of the most important celebrations in the annual Christian calendar
Easter is one of the most important celebrations in the annual Christian calendar

Indeed the more canny people in Northern Ireland believe that the current arrangement which gives us a direct input into Europe is something which our fellow citizens in Scotland and Wales would grab with both hands if it was on offer for them. But it is not. This privilege within the four home nations is ours alone.

What we need most of all in Northern Ireland is a change of mindset. We have been disappointed by the failure of so many other attempts to find political progress here that many people believe deep down that nothing will work.

Unfortunately this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy and sooner or later the usual cynics among us end up by saying, “We told you so.”

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It is important therefore that we do not allow ourselves to fall into the same trap this time around. There is simply not enough money available to plug all the gaps, but instead of concentrating on what is missing, we should be concentrating on what is being achieved.

Take, for example, the commitment of the Executive to help fund the multi-cultural education developments in Omagh and to make it a priority to tackle the long-standing crisis in the environmental damage to Lough Neagh.

It is encouraging to realise that with a return to Stormont we can have hope and renewal rolled into one in tackling the challenges head on.

It is also worth underlining that our current political leaders Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly having been working extremely hard to demonstrate to the world that they are trying to make Stormont work.

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This was seen in their successful visit to Washington to share in the celebrations around St. Patrick’s Day and also to try to attract vital inward American investment to this part of the island which uniquely has a foot in Europe and also important commercial links with the rest of the United Kingdom.In other areas the two female leaders have been pointing the way forward.

The presence of the Sinn Fein First Minister at a Windsor Park football match and the televised and good-hearted attempt by the deputy First Minister to use a hurling stick were important examples of shared positivity in a province of divisive flags and emblems where symbolism is so important.

We can also take heart from non-political successes such as the emergence of the young Conor Bradley from Tyrone who is already a Liverpool soccer star and who scored a stunning goal at Hampden Park in the welcome 1-0 victory of the Northern Ireland team over fancied Scotland.

Sport is a unifying factor and more than a few true-blue unionists were rooting for the marvellous Ireland rugby team as they won their prestigious Six Nations championship back to back.

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It reminds me of the late Gerry Fitt who told me on the day when England beat Ireland in Dublin: “You unionist guys have it both ways.”

While this Easter is more hopeful for all of us than for several years, it is no time to put on the rose-tinted spectacles. Given the divisions and the very nature of politics there will be controversies and disagreements along the way, but there is no need to lapse back into the bad old ways.

We have made a brave start and we must build on this.

Sadly, however the controversial and remarkable film on BBC i-Player, The Secret Army, while a brilliant account of the Provisional IRA’s atrocities in 1972, will open many wounds among those who suffered from the violence of those ghouls who have been given almost historical celebrity status.

However we must move on, and we were given wise advice by King Charles who urged everyone to extend and appreciate the hand of friendship.

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He too has made a great start in following in the awesome footsteps of his mother, and like her he is not afraid to bear witness to his Christianity in an apparently secular world.

We are privileged to have such impressive Royal leaders as the King and Queen and also the Prince and Princess of Wales, and our hearts and prayers go out to them they face their immense challenges as individuals and as a family.

So during this weekend we should remember that the Easter message of hope and renewal is not just for the church-goers but for everyone who wants the best for all our people in this beautiful province.

Happy Easter everyone.

Alf McCreary is an author and award-winning Northern Ireland journalist who has written extensively from home and abroad on religion and current affairs. His new book ‘Keeping the Faith’ is published by Messenger and will be available from early April.