Ian Ellis: Building relationships is of great importance, particularly at times of uncertainty and division

Pro independence Scottish campaigners during the early phases of the independence referendum election count in 2014, which they in the end lost. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
Pro independence Scottish campaigners during the early phases of the independence referendum election count in 2014, which they in the end lost. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
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I have no idea what is going to happen over Brexit.

Nor do I have any idea when, if ever, an Executive will be formed at Stormont.

Canon Ian Ellis is the former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette

Canon Ian Ellis is the former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette

I have simply no idea.

I do know that plenty of people, including church leaders, have been expressing concerns about the unknown future on the brink of which we currently stand. I too am concerned.

Television, radio and newspapers are all full of speculation.

Will there be a no confidence vote at Westminster? Will there be a government of national unity with perhaps some currently unsuspecting MP being delivered into No. 10?

Will there be a general election? Will the UK really leave the EU on October 31, as new prime minister Boris Johnson insists? Is he bluffing? Will Northern Ireland’s MLAs finally reach an agreement that will enable them to get together and form an Executive?

Adopting a ‘come what may’ attitude may lead to a quiet and uncontroversial life but of course serious issues cannot simply be swept aside.

There is so much at stake that questions have to be asked and answers have to be given.

However, perhaps in the face of such uncertainty as we face today, rather than simply resigning oneself to not knowing what lies ahead, it is also worthwhile, and is in fact natural, to reflect on the things in life that are constant and important to everyone, not least home and family, love and friendship, wisdom and insight.

Many people are anxious about possible damage to the peace process in this part of the world as a result of Brexit. However, let it be perfectly clear that if in the undesirable event that there does turn out to be a no deal outcome, it would not warrant any violent reaction whatsoever.

Equally, if there is direct rule or a referendum in favour of a united Ireland, there would also be no justification for any violent response.

That is because other important things in life go far, far deeper than even those issues. In fact, each of those scenarios would demand all the more co-operation and community spirit.

Yes, livelihoods and peace itself can depend on what happens in the body politic. No one should underestimate the importance of these things to people’s lives and politicians may never forget the huge responsibility for other people’s welfare that is entrusted to them at the ballot box.

In standing for election, politicians are asking for the authority to act for the people’s benefit and those who are elected are duty bound to carry out their responsibilities in a manner that is consistent with that spirit.

Yet there needs to be a sense of perspective and proportion about our current predicament.

The sanctity of home and family, the unspeakable joys of loving and having the company and support of friends, the common sense of true wisdom and insight, all far outstrip the things that are nonetheless justifiably dominating the public discourse at this time, Brexit and Stormont.

I say ‘justifiably’ because of course these are issues of far reaching consequence.

No one knows precisely what tomorrow will bring and so, when we step into tomorrow, we are stepping into the unknown.

We should be used to this because we do it every day, but we very easily forget how fragile life is, how easily and how swiftly all can change. To adapt the words of Robert Burns in his 1785 poem, ‘To a Mouse’: the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Of course, people of faith entrust themselves to divine keeping, and people of no faith can also train themselves to face the unexpected.

What is important for society in Northern Ireland in today’s perhaps especially unpredictable times is that people of this faith or that faith, people of faith and of no faith, all understand the importance of maintaining good relationships.

I remember visiting Scotland in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum. There had been a huge public debate and there was a record 84.6% turnout. In round figures, 45% of votes favoured severing the union while 55% wanted no change.

The occasion of my visit was a family wedding and the proprietor of the hotel in Argyll and Bute told me how the debate had placed often very serious strains on relationships in families, in local communities, in work places.

The beauty and tranquility of the location contrasted with what must have been an at times turbulent experience.

It is understandable that many Scottish people would embark on a re-run of that experience with not a little trepidation.

Whatever about the contentious issues facing Northern Ireland today, and whatever their outcome, it is to be hoped that people will understand that nurturing good relationships is among the most important things that anyone can do.

This is so because one of the essential building blocks for the future is good relationships. Bitterness, resentment, animosity, all threaten the future and are the enemy of each and every person.

Many years ago when I was a curate in the Church of Ireland parish of Armagh, I was asked to join a discussion on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme.

The clergy of the different denominations in Armagh met from time to time and not long after that broadcast, I found myself in the company of Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich. He told me that he had heard me on the radio and commented that he always believed that how a thing is said on radio is more important than what is actually said.

I hope that was a compliment! But at any rate, I found what he said so striking that I still recall it today. It was a perspective that certainly speaks of the importance of building up good relations by what is said.

There is of course the sense in which actions speak louder than words. Yet, words, as well as having all the potential to express care, healing and comfort, can have a devastating effect.

Before there was writing, there were words. Important contracts were sealed with words. A word became a bond. It is significant that when two people get married they don’t just sign forms, they stand together and speak those words, ‘I do’.

The life that attaches to words is perhaps illustrated in the Christian tradition by the opening sentence of St John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Words come from within. They are immensely powerful in that they express thoughts and feelings, and when they are ill chosen they can hit other people very hard. Sometimes they are never forgotten, for good or for ill.

In the no doubt continuing debate and speculation about our current situation, without denying the place of robust exchange, it is important that words are fairly measured because what the future requires in this part of the world is a willingness to treat those of legitimate but different views in an honest and respectful way.

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