Faith & Reason: All going on an Irish summer holiday

Peace has taken a hold in Northern Ireland, even if the negotiators haven't noticed. That is what at last should give us hope of a `solution'
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A NEW meteorological phenomenon is in prospect. We have all experienced Indian summers, stretching into the dusty days of autumn. Are we on the brink, this year, of the first Irish summer, long, depressing and tedious, with lots of hot air, a distinct chill, and the threat of storms?

I apologise for tossing another metaphor into the Irish ballot boxes, already stuffed with so many from the past few days - poor substitutes or the Armalites that were supposed to have been crammed there. The image was suggested by being told that the peace negotiations were being "parked" for the summer, and by mental pictures of the politicians climbing wearily off the bus: young David complaining about the luggage some of his fellow passengers had stowed on board; young Seamus arguing that it was always going to be got rid of en route. The opposite, in fact, of Cliff Richard and his chums alighting in "Summer Holiday": "No more worries for a week or two". Instead, we have a long summer of listening to people like the Irish wife of a colleague, who says: "Things are much clearer when you realise something important about the solution to the Northern Ireland problem: there is no solution."

Fair dos. We deserve it, really. It's time for the fatalists to hold the floor for a bit, since they've had to listen to all our guff about peace over the past few months. The point about peace is that you do have to talk it up. It is an abstract, intangible thing, and needs high-flown language to make it sexy. For the men in suits during the countless hours of talks, peace was a companion who slipped out of the room whenever they tried to assert their political virility to their sceptical, hard-line colleagues. Perhaps Mo should have issued them all with UN peace-keeping fatigues at the outset. And stickers: "Peace-brokers do it for hours and hours"; I suppose that's what the Nobel Prize was for.

Still, Gerry Adams's jibe on Thursday about the Unionists' "Afrikaner mentality" recalled the other country where the fatalists were so sure they were right. How often did we tell each other that any move to democracy in South Africa would end in a bloodbath? Instead, the negotiators became heroes and an over-arching peace was established there, which has enabled the politicians to start to tackle the country's real problems: poverty, unemployment, crime and personal violence.

This is the true nature of peace. It doesn't remove problems, it merely clears the decks to allow them to be dealt with. When put into practice, peace isn't a shining, noble ideal, but a dull, easily overlooked absence of threat. In Northern Ireland's case, it means a little less work for the undertakers, fewer clients for the accident and emergency department and the occupational therapists, a reduced military and police bill, a few million pounds saved in the renovation and rebuilding fund, and a swathe of new jobs. It is also scores of people still alive, hundreds of relatives unbereaved, countless children who sleep more soundly; but, unlike the victims of violence, none of these people can be pointed to by the politicians, saying, "That person is alive because of the concessions we made in the negotiating chamber."

When they get back from the hols and think about reboarding the bus, the province's politicians might consider a different tack. The experience of the Churches is helpful here: not their experience of finding an answer to disunity because, pathetically, they haven't; but their knowledge of the techniques of moving together when there is still disagreement.

The trick is to see the negotiations as the working out of a complicated maths problem. After years of separation (long division?) the question paper is covered with daunting symbols: x and y; a, b and c; (i) and (ii) - corresponding, in the Church's case, to the doctrine of the Eucharist, or the role of the Pope, or the ethics of birth control; and, in Ireland's case, to the marches, the armaments and the terrorist prisoners. The sum is too difficult to solve all at once. The only thing to do is to apply lots of brackets: here is a part of the sum we can solve now, there is a part we can leave till later.

Various international church discussions have been under way for many years, teasing out answers to different bracketed parts of the disunity problem. It doesn't matter, very much, how fast or slowly they move. Their existence is enough to encourage local groups of Christians to start to do things together. We know there are problems still to resolve, but we can rely on somebody else to work at them, and, hey, they don't seem so important to us any more.

That "hey" moment, incidentally, is one to watch. It can be just then that the theologians/politicians get worried that the old principles are being disregarded; at which point, there is a danger that they back off in an attempt to rally the troops. But nothing can ever be the same again. Religious divisions in mainland Britain, for instance, could never again reach the same pitch of hostility. In Northern Ireland, the talks have already done a good deal of their work, however abandoned the bus might look throughout the summer. Peace, almost unnoticed by the negotiators, has taken a hold.

Paul Handley is Editor of the `Church Times'