Norman Hamilton was installed as the new moderator last night at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. A pastor for the past 22 years at Ballysillan Presbyterian, in a tough part of north Belfast, Hamilton can speak from experience about the urgent need for improved community relations.
In his first speech as moderator, Hamilton used strong and vivid language to highlight the community relations issue, calling sectarianism ‘the demon among us’ and saying that the failure of politicians to agree a community relations strategy is ‘a public disgrace.’
These are welcome words for those who have been wondering whatever happened to the so-called ‘shared future’ process, which was meant to produce a workable long-term strategy for combating sectarianism and promoting good relations.
It is undoubtedly easier for our two dominant ethno-religious political parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – to settle for what Hamilton called a ‘social apartheid.’ These political parties don’t gain much electorally for appealing beyond their ethno-religious bases to build the sort of society Hamilton is talking about.
"It seems to me that we have all settled into what I would describe as a social apartheid, where it is very comfortable to live without any meaningful contact with folks who are different from us.
"There are huge implications of that, for example, why would anybody want to invest in a community where people don’t even talk to each other?
"So this isn’t just about social cohesion, this is about the health and the future of the province."
Allied to Hamilton’s call to ‘kickstart’ discussion about a shared future, I would add that this should include a healthy consideration about how to deal with the past.
Just like the shared future process, Northern Ireland’s dealing with the past process seems to have been quietly shelved by the politicians in power – in Northern Ireland as well as Westminster.
Despite the funding, time and effort invested by the Consultative Group on the Past, it could very well be the case that none of their recommendations will be implemented.
The report of the Consultative Group on the Past named the churches as having contributed to sectarianism, yet called on the churches to take a lead in helping communities to deal with the legacies of the past.
We just can’t separate the need to deal with the past from the ability to build a shared future.
In that light, Hamilton’s desire to place the Presbyterian Church at the heart of a public conversation about community relations is heartening.
Churches, unlike some community groups, don’t have to rely on public funding to remain viable. So perhaps getting people within Northern Ireland’s churches excited about dealing with the past and building a better, shared future, could add a spark to public thinking on these issues.
I’m not sure if Presbyterians in the Republic of Ireland will be all that interested in Hamilton’s agenda. But the lessons that can be learned from Northern Ireland’s attempts to deal with diversity should have some relevance to how people of different religious and ethnic groups treat each other in the increasingly multicultural Republic as well.