Abraham Lincoln said that the best way to predict the future is to create it. So would you care to predict what sort of future our politics is creating?
There is something we know to be true about politics and power in Northern Ireland.
The great ‘truth’ is this – the way to power and votes in Northern Ireland is to press the buttons of sectarianism and fear in your own people.
There was a time when the ability to press those buttons was about stirring people up to fight. Those days have passed but the temptation is still the same – to win by frightening your own people into ticking the right box in the polling booth.
The guns are more or less silent and pressing the buttons of fear and sectarianism is now a subtler affair. The key is deniability - to carefully calibrate the message to your own people but in a way that allows you to deny that you are using sectarianism and fear to bag votes.
Dog whistle politics is a type of political speech using code words that appear to mean one thing to the general population but have a different meaning for a targeted part of your audience. It is called dog-whistle politics because it means putting out a message that, like a high-pitched dog-whistle, is only fully audible to those at whom it is directly aimed.
We are stuck in a cycle of dog-whistle politics that can be broken in two ways:
By our political operators resisting temptation. Pressing the buttons of fear and sectarianism can be dressed up in the cutest PR. Saying no to pressing those buttons is about making a choice – that there is something more important than winning or not losing. That something is the common good.
By each of us choosing to grow up. Ron Heifetz says “In a crisis we tend to look for the wrong kind of leadership. We call for someone with answers, decision, strength and a map of the future, someone who knows where we ought to be going – in short, someone who can make hard problems simple. …. We should be calling for leadership that will challenge us to face problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions – problems that require us to learn new ways”.
Things in Northern Ireland are better than they used to be – but are they good enough? It needs politics beyond a place where the key skill on either side is the ability to gently blow on the embers of division – keeping them alive just enough to help us win, or at least not to lose?
Politics needs better oxygen than hatred. Have we the courage to choose more than sectarianism with a better class of PR?
It’s been ten years since I carefully went about letting some friends know a secret - ultimately causing me to walk away from a job and a recognisable religious vocation.
For twenty-two years I had been a Church of Ireland Rector on both sides of the border. Not only was it a job I loved, it also provided security. But personal conscience forced me to make a choice - between a passion relentlessly growing in me and continuing in good conscience to be a Rector. To try and accommodate both seemed inappropriate.
My big secret? I was a unionist. Not only that, I also wanted to act on it by becoming an active member of a political party – in my case the Ulster Unionist Party. It got to a point where I wanted to become quite open about it all and thus contribute in some way to political debate in Northern Ireland.
I decided it would be inappropriate for me to carry on as a parish Rector whilst proceeding to make plain my politics, whatever they might happen to be. Hence the decision to leave active ministry, get a job doing something (anything) else, and turn up at my local UUP branch with my £20 to join up.
Everyone has his or her passion. For me it was politics. Having at different times lived in Northern Ireland, England and the Republic (substitute politically correct terminology for any of the aforementioned as desired – oh the tedium!) I have devoured politics wherever I have been.
My memory of ten very happy years living in Dublin suggests a unionism not born out of antipathy to things southern. Nor do I feel any less than at home as Iife has taken me to now live happily in Co Kildare. My pleasure in the union with Britain was / is not rooted in antagonism to something else.
Time and circumstance (a three-year post with the Church of Ireland in 2005) led me out of my political affiliation – a status that remains. But I have three reflections on the heady brew that was/is religion and politics in Northern Ireland?
Firstly, politics is not more important than being a Christian - nor even on a level par with it. If I felt there was ever a conflict of passion between my faith as a Christian and my politics I would have dropped the politics in an instant. For the Church and the individual Christian only one passion can reign supreme, and its not politics!
Secondly, it is not more Christian to be a unionist than a nationalist, or vice versa. Whatever ‘ism’ presses your buttons I am honour bound to respect it when that politics is peaceful and peacefully pursued. I was a unionist as a matter of political preference. It was not an article of religious faith! Two thousand years of history show that Christianity is strong enough not to require any particular political context. Did faith influence my approach to politics? Absolutely! But, I was also confident enough in my politics not to need a religious rationale for it.
Lastly, life on this island can make it unsettling to realise that political affiliation does not have to match religious allegiance. It can be unnerving if we feel that ‘our’ church is not necessarily aligned with our politics. That can lead to sense of being let down if the ‘church’ no longer speaks for our politics – leaving us feeling that bit more vulnerable. Undoubtedly unsettling but a journey that takes us ultimately to a deeper confidence both in our religious beliefs and our political aspirations.
Religion and politics are both noble. But neither are meant to be the prisoner of the other.