Faith Matters

'Peace and forgiveness needs to flow up the hill to Stormont'

Tackling sectarianism here in Northern Ireland is as great a Christian imperative as it has ever been, say the Rev Steve Stockman and Fr Martin Magill as they reflect on this year's 4 Corners Festival

Fr Martin Magill and Rev Steve Stockman

Poet Michael Longley pictured during the 4 Corners Festival. He read his poem Ceasefire at the end of a performance of Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy. Picture by Bernie Brown

SECTARIANISM was headline news again the other week.

The story emanated from the west of Scotland where Rangers and Celtic fans were, for once, as one as they hurled their vitriolic sectarian abuse - first Celtic fans at Kilmarnock's Protestant striker Kris Boyd, and then Rangers fans dealt out the same to Kilmarnock's Catholic manager Steve Clarke.

It seems senseless and we wish it was past its 'sell by date', but sadly sectarianism is alive and well in the west of Scotland.

Of course, we should not be smug. Sectarianism is still part and parcel of our society 20 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. And tackling sectarianism here in Northern Ireland is as great a Christian imperative as it has ever been.

Indeed, the collapse of the Good Friday institutions two years ago and the absence of a functioning government has inevitably hampered efforts to promote reconciliation and address the cancer of sectarianism.

So, what can the rest of us do? Do we wait until our politicians overcome their differences? We could be waiting a long time. So, of course we can't wait.

We have been saying for some time that mercy, forgiveness and a stable peace are not going to drip down the hill from Stormont.

We believe that they must 'flow up the hill' from the grass roots of our communities who seem to be further ahead in their work of reconciliation than our main political parties.

We believe we have seen the evidence of that from the recent 4 Corners Festival which ran from Wednesday January 30 until Sunday February 10.

The collapse of the Good Friday institutions two years ago and the absence of a functioning government has inevitably hampered efforts to promote reconciliation and address the cancer of sectarianism

These 12 days were made up of music, theatre, film, an art exhibition, sport, a walking tour, a bus tour and keynote talks.

The 2019 festival had many highlights:

  • Michael Longley reciting his poem Ceasefire at the end of Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy, in which Paul Gallagher, a victim/survivor of the Troubles, played Philotetes, the wounded hero, surrounded by politicians as his fellow actors.
  • Brian Houston from the Braniel area of east Belfast singing in Irish on the Falls Road.
  • A former UDR soldier in deep conversation with a Catholic bishop after a performance of the play Beneath the Harp and Crown.
  • Alan McBride, Eugene Reavey and Beryl Quigley sharing how they dealt with the violent deaths of loved ones in Rostrevor man Jonny Clark's film Guardians of The Flame, and in their panel discussion afterwards.
  • Almost 100 children and young people from the four corners of the city playing Gaelic football, soccer, rugby and basketball as well as coming together to explore the festival theme of forgiveness.
  • One man sharing how he had protested against the building of the Church of the Resurrection and Holy Family Parish Centre 30 years ago but was now going into the building for our prayer breakfast.
  • Protestants piling into St Peter's Cathedral off the Falls Road to hear a powerful musical evening on the Christian idea of grace and forgiveness by the New Irish Orchestra and Choir.

That last highlight spells out why we started the 4 Corners Festival seven years ago, and why we are thrilled to see it thriving.

When we conjured up the idea of 4 Corners Festival over a cup of coffee, we realised that there was a geographical apartheid to our city which kept people - for the very good reason of safety and security during the Troubles - in their own corners.

But we believed, post-Troubles there was a new God-sent opportunity for people to venture out of their respective corners and cross divides - geographical, religious, cultural and, of course, psychological.

Derek Poole during a 4 Corners Festival event on 'Lessons from Rwanda'. Picture by Bernie Brown

We believed that everyone should be able to call Belfast "our" city.

The Festival, in many ways, is our attempt to break down sectarianism.

There are three things we hope that 4 Corners Festival will continue to do.

We hope that it will:

  • Take people out of their corner of the city into places they have never been before.
  • Enable them to meet people in those corners that they might never otherwise meet.
  • Throw some Christian insight into how we might live together in our broken and wounded yet still beautiful and wonderful city.

At our first Sunday night event we welcomed Fr Greg Boyle SJ, who heads up the biggest gang intervention programme in the world, to Skainos on the Newtownards Road in the east of the city.

Fr Greg Boyle SJ, founder of Homeboy Industries, the world's biggest gang intervention programme, was a keynote speaker at this year's 4 Corners Festival, which took 'scandalous forgiveness' as its theme. Picture by Bernie Brown

He had alongside him three former gang leaders who stood as the proof of his redemptive work.

Also, on the platform was Tim Mairs, a Temporary Assistant Chief Constable of the PSNI.

The geographical location was significant. Just the week before Ian Ogle had been murdered in Cluan Place, a short distance away. Crowds were on the streets protesting his death.

We had a Catholic priest speaking in a Methodist-inspired centre, Skainos, as well as a senior police officer breathing some hope and wisdom at the centre of that community.

When we conjured up the idea of 4 Corners Festival we realised that there was a geographical apartheid to our city which kept people in their own corners

That mixed and overflowing gathering at the lower end of the Newtownards Road gave us an insight into how people from our different traditions can enrich all of us.

Fr Greg threw out a phrase that Tim Mairs caught and reiterated: "It is hard to demonise people that you know."

It was an echo from a line from a musical evening about the First World War by New Irish Arts a few years ago: "Hatred is compromised by relationship."

Documentary Guardians of the Flame, which tells the stories of people who lost loved ones in the Troubles, was screened during the 4 Corners Festival. Pictured from left are film-maker Jonny Clark, Alan McBride, Beryl Quigley and Eugene Reavey. Picture by Bernie Brown

The 4 Corners Festival this year - and every year - attempts to create such compromise, to rid us of the demonic, to make friendships across our sectarian boundaries and see the lines of sectarianism erased.

In short, as this happens, we will be developing a new culture where we will be able to celebrate - and be enriched - by our denominational differences.

It is also our fervent hope that the spirit of 4 Corners Festival percolates throughout our city and elsewhere the whole year long through to Festival 2020 and beyond.

A powerful musical evening on the Christian idea of grace and forgiveness by the New Irish Orchestra and Choir was held in St Peter's Cathedral in the 4 Corners Festival. Picture by Bernie Brown

Fr Martin Magill, 4 Corners Festival co-founder, in Clonard Monastery during the closing night. Picture by Bernie Brown

Singer-songwriter Brian Houston, pictured right, who performed in St John's Catholic Church on the Falls Road, being interviewed by 4 Corners Festival co-founder the Rev Steve Stockman. Picture by Bernie Brown

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