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Faith Matters

Rev Norman Hamilton: Chaotic. Shambolic. Grim. Just three words used to describe the failure of Stormont talks

The electorate has become tired of repeated failures at Stormont, says the Rev Dr Norman Hamilton. Rather than simply lament the situation, what should we do?

Lights, camera, but no action; public expectations have sunk so low that there was no outcry following the latest collapse of powersharing talks at Stormont. Picture by Hugh Russell

CHAOTIC. Shambolic. Grim. Just three of the words used to describe the failure of the recent talks aimed at restoring a devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Yet it was not followed by a public outpouring of either anger or grief. The electorate has become tired of repeated failures, and so had low expectations of this latest round of negotiations.

Reflecting on the failure, Dr Noble McNeely, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, said: "Along with many others, I am very disappointed that we are not in a position for devolved government to be restored, and I continue to be concerned about the vacuum of good and stable government, which, of course, impacts most profoundly on vulnerable people in our society."

His words about "good and stable government" are an important insight.

It is, I think, very important to understand that devolution must never be seen as an end in itself.

The Belfast Agreement in 1998 was designed to bring good quality government to Northern Ireland. But as we approach the 20th anniversary of it being signed, it is hard to argue that its core aim has been achieved.

Rather than simply lament the current situation, there are three things that we can - and should - take on board for the future.

One important lesson is that good government requires good relationships.

Elected representatives themselves have spoken of 'toxic relationships', 'mistrust', and 'bad blood'.

Christ's words in Mark 3 seem extraordinarily appropriate: "If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand."

It is significant that the Bible often calls for relationships to be healthy and to be restored where they are broken.

Jesus' call to "love your enemies" is important for many reasons, not least because the failure to do so corrodes both mind and soul, and darkens the future for everyone.

A further, and perhaps crucial, lesson is that those of us who are ordinary voters need to change our expectations of what we expect from those we elect.

Given that we live in a 'representative' democracy, we vote for a government and our representatives to make laws, and rule the country on our behalf - so we give our vote to those who will look after 'our side'.

We expect their primary role to be that of 'representing' our views, our needs and our hopes.

Since there is so little agreement across our community as to what those actually are, then it is almost impossible to govern well.

There is, however, another compelling view of what we could expect from those we elect.

As far back as 1774, Edmund Burke, speaking in Bristol, said this: "Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament."

This alternative view means that those we elect will use their best judgment to work for the 'one interest' and the common good of everyone - and in so doing, they may well set aside some views that matter to those who elected them in the first place.

This can be very risky, for they might not be re-elected, but that is part of what it means to give real leadership.

Personally, I find this an attractive approach in our deeply divided society. I also believe that it is fully consistent with a high view of what the Bible teaches.

Finally, and much neglected, is the Biblical call for all of us who are committed Christians to remember our land, our leaders and all our people in our prayers, and to do so regularly.

It is all too easy, and deeply dishonouring to God, to work on the assumption that deliverance will come mainly through politics and politicians.

Paul's instruction to Timothy could not be clearer: "I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness."

Is it not true that we spend much more time listening to the news than we do in prayer for those in the news?

I am often guilty of this in my own life. That needs to change, and with the Lord's help it will.

But perhaps the key lesson of the failure in Stormont is that the thinking that has got us into this mess isn't going to get us out of it.

:: The Rev Dr Norman Hamilton is a former Presbyterian moderator and convener of the Church's Council for Public Affairs. Courtesy of the Presbyterian Herald.

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