Canon Ian Ellis: On Northern Ireland’s centenary, it is our responsibility to work at making peace more secure

Northern Ireland’s centenary this year is perhaps best marked by a determined effort by everyone to understand more clearly how things have come to be as they are in this place.

Friday, 7th May 2021, 2:37 pm
Updated Friday, 7th May 2021, 2:49 pm
Partition in 1921 was for the purpose of avoiding civil war. Yet there has been violence since then. Steps to end the Troubles led to 1998 Belfast Agreement

Looking back is important, at least in so far as it helps one to understand the present better and to look to the future with realism.

History has much to teach every generation for the good of the future.

That is one important reason why Remembrance Day every November should remain a permanent fixture.

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By recalling the history we are helped to remind ourselves of the horrors of war.

The Irish Church Leaders Group — comprising the Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic Archbishops of Armagh, the Presbyterian Moderator, the Methodist President and the President of the Irish Council of Churches — has issued an apt Centenary Prayer which in part reads:

“As we travel onwards in our journey, may we learn from the experiences of the past and from those who trod these roads before us, so that the inheritance we pass on to the next generation is the gift of understanding, peace and hope.”

There will of course be different feelings about this centenary and different understandings of our history but, given honest and patient dialogue, a more shared understanding is not impossible.

Also, those who have lived in Northern Ireland, no matter what their political aspirations or historical perspectives may be, will surely be able to point to things for which they are grateful.

Partition in 1921 was for the purpose of avoiding civil war.

Yet, there has been violence since then.

Once again, steps were taken to end the violence of the Troubles, resulting in the settlement of the Belfast Agreement of 1998 followed by the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.

It is the responsibility facing everyone in Northern Ireland today, and everyone with the welfare Northern Ireland at heart, to work at that peace, making it more durable, more secure, not least by carefully observing the balances built into the Belfast Agreement.

Peace provides the opportunity for jobs, for prosperity, for a more secure, settled and contented life.

For those who feel deprived of their aspiration for a different island in which Northern Ireland joins with the Republic, there can be thankfulness at least for the settlement which accords the majority the right to change the constitutional circumstances.

The Belfast Agreement provides for the people of Northern Ireland to vote to join the Republic in a referendum called by the Secretary of State if and when he or she believes there is a majority wanting that change.

Because there also has to be a referendum in the Republic, taking this step provided for in the Belfast Agreement would implicitly require both the British and Irish governments to be in agreement with proceeding in this way.

If we can learn one thing from the very recent history of the whole Brexit scenario it is surely that before people vote on a major change of national circumstances there should be a clear understanding of just what that change would entail.

For that reason, as and when a border poll takes place on this island, everyone should know exactly what voting for a change would mean in practical terms.

University College London’s Independent Commission on Referendums has carried out considerable work on the implications of holding such plebiscites, highlighting many issues, such as campaigning, financing, standards of discourse, the digital factor and the wording of the question itself.

As the commission’s report has indicated, there naturally has to be clarity about a referendum proposal.

In the Brexit scenario, the withdrawal agreement came after the decision was made in principle and there was no referendum on the withdrawal agreement but only a parliamentary vote.

Two ways of doing things better in any future referendum are either by setting out the details in advance of any referendum, as happened with the Belfast Agreement, or by holding a two-stage referendum in which the principle of change is decided in the first vote, which is then followed by the detailed negotiations, leading to a second confirmatory vote.

This would not be voting again on the same question but would be to set out on a referendum process that clearly has two different stages.

A two-stage referendum would avoid the need for detailed negotiations if at the first, ‘in principle’ stage the decision were not to make any change.

It would also create the right environment in which to hold detailed negotiations should change have been chosen in principle.

We live in a society that is becoming more and more religiously plural.

For that reason, in marking this centenary it would be good if, in addition to church services, there were an opportunity for leaders of different faiths to come together, possibly in an online conference, to discuss common concerns such as global religious freedom and charitable works.

There are certain difficulties inherent in what is called ‘interfaith worship’ but there surely can be no difficulty in people of different faiths meeting, declaring good relations between their communities and seeking to promote mutual religious interests.

• Canon Ian Ellis is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette

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