Think Friday: What does 2019 hold?

This week Peter offers a punchy and creative take on some of the most pressing issues facing Northern Ireland in the year ahead.  


It is hard to get past Brexit and yet somehow we must. At this moment, there is no majority in Parliament for remain, nor for the current deal or for a hard Brexit. A second referendum might therefore seem tempting, but this risks undermining the first vote and what would the new threshold be if 52% wasn’t enough?

What most of Parliament seem to agree on is that May’s deal is bad; but so is staying in the EU when the majority has voted to leave or leaving without a deal given how unprepared the UK is. While this situation creates particular risks for Northern Ireland, it also creates opportunities.

However, we need an executive in place, and one prepared to step up and step out for all the people of Northern Ireland. That is not happening and the current political architecture is facilitating failure. Power-sharing is vital but a particular form of co-governance which allows any one party to pull down the whole political system might no longer be fit for purpose. No-one should be allowed to hold the whole process, and by default the country, to ransom.

The situation in schools and hospitals is beyond critical. The lack of long term thinking and infrastructure spending during this deadlock will have consequences for years to come. There is an opportunity for talks ahead of the Secretary of State calling fresh elections, along side the local elections in May if not before.

It will probably take more than one election and it might lead to new parties, more independents or a whole new system of government, but it must be up to the people. Blaming politicians is easy, we must take responsibility for our own actions and future.

When talks eventually resume, church and civic leaders should meet in parallel to the political leaders coming up with creative ideas beyond the current political paradigm. Our role is to be a God-faithful presence, bringing hope, thinking the unthinkable and reimaging the boundaries of the possible. Our past has shaped who we are, but it does not determine who we become. Churches must be prepared to take risks.

This year will mark 50 years from the beginning of the troubles. We have come along way, but there is also a long way to go. The journey of reconciliation is a long and slow one in which churches have a vital role.

One practical step could be to hand over plans for the Maze peace centre to a representative group from the churches. We have a history of working well together, and free from political interference a flourishing reconciliation centre could develop. Likewise other aspects could be handed over to business and sports groups. Political deadlock should not stop parts of site being developed. When politicians get stuck, they need to outsource the decision rather than paralysis setting in.

New Year’s resolutions are about changing an undesired trait or behaviour and instead looking to improve our lives. In 2019, Ireland will sadly do the opposite, radically regressing its abortion laws to allow abortion for any reason at all in the first trimester. Northern Ireland will then be one of the only countries in the western world holding on to the most basic human right - the right to be born. Again the Church across the island has an important role to play as a place of hope, help and redemption for women, unborn babies and their families. 

In the Bible, Daniel famously resolved not to defile himself with the king’s food and wine, which had almost certainly been offered to an idol. Living in the world as a faithful ambassador of Jesus requires great wisdom, grace and a similar resolve from us.

Resolutions are not easy to keep. My prayer for this year is that the church will model a different way of leadership in the difficult discussions around Brexit, abortion, welfare reform, the past, and the political future of Northern Ireland. But more than that, I pray that it will witness faithfully to the true source of healing and hope for a world that is hurting and that many might encounter Jesus for the first time or afresh.