Brexit everywhere

What does the Hartlepool by-election result tell us? Many things, no doubt. But surely that the political dynamics which gave us Brexit are still very much in play – and not much that the Labour Party can do about it.

The same dynamics have brought an end to Arlene Foster’s time as First Minister of Northern Ireland. Under her leadership, the DUP made two strategic errors – the first when the supported Brexit; the second when they believed Boris Johnson when he said that there would be no border in the Irish Sea.

Fintan O’Toole, writing in the Irish Times, put it like this:

“They were exactly the consequences that unionism should have most feared. Brexit would destabilise the UK as a political entity. And it would, by dragging them out of the EU against their will, alienate the Catholics of Northern Ireland. It was a missile precisely targeted against Ulster unionism’s own protective walls. The DUP said: “Fire ahead!”

Meanwhile, on a slightly more cerebral level, I’ve been reading Professor Anthony Reddie’s book ‘Theologising Brexit’ – having listened to him recently on the Corrymeela Podcast. Professor Reddie is Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture and a leading authority on Black Liberation Theology. He describes his book as concerned with ‘providing a theological articulation of the subtextual nature of Brexit that was the collective dis-ease with immigration, ‘race’ and notions of ethnic and cultural difference in Britain, as opposed to discussing the merits or otherwise of the European Union.’

In suggesting that churches and faith communities have largely failed to make a theological or prophetic response to Brexit, he mentions that ‘Anglicans were more disposed to vote Leave than any other religiously defined group in the United Kingdom when it came to Brexit.’ And he went on to remark that it was the Anglicanism of the Vicar of Dibley – where there wasn’t a black face in sight – which would have voted leave while the Anglicanism of ‘Rev’ would have voted Remain.

It seems to me that, as Arlene Foster discovered, Brexit poses political questions which it is very hard to answer. Meanwhile stresses and strains in the United Kingdom are growing – and the previously unimaginable prospect of some kind of rapprochement between North and South in Ireland becomes something which can at least be talked about.

100 years of Northern Ireland

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of the establishment of Northern Ireland. Although I was born in Dublin, I grew up in Enniskillen – a beautiful place tarnished by the smoke and mirrors world of discrimination and gerrymander so well captured by Seamus Heaney’s 1975 poem, ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’. And of course Enniskillen is probably best known for the Remembrance Day bombing of 1987.

We did our best to make a contribution in reconciliation until the time came to move on in 2005 Much of my heart remains in Northern Ireland. Our children grew up there. The people are wonderful – warm and kind. They have wonderful turns of phrase which stay with me. We lived through the ups and downs of the Troubles – both the hopes and the awfulness of it all.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was a real moment of hope. It has largely ended the violence but Northern Ireland really isn’t a place at ease with itself. I remember that I misread the significance of the Agreement – telling my congregation that Easter Sunday that it would strengthen the centre and marginalise the extremes. In fact, it did the opposite.

Professor Duncan Morrow has been writing today on his Facebook page. What he writes is the best analysis I have read of the situation as we now find it. This is part of what he said:

The peace process and the Good Friday Agreement were by far the closest Northern Ireland came to a second chance. After years of carnage, Britain and Ireland concluded that hard borders in Ireland were incompatible with a sustainable peace. So we got the opposite: reconciliation, shared government, human rights, North-South and East-West bodies, consent and exclusively peaceful and democratic means. And open borders and self defined citizenship which allowed the water of nationality to find its own level.It has been complicated enough. The institutions and principles designed in 1998 have tottered between promise and collapse. A new generation escaped the trauma of everyday violence, although real trust has been hard to detect. But there was at least a project until Brexit. In practice, Brexit was the moment when the British interest in peace in Ireland was subordinated to a determination to leave the European Union. It was not so much that they were against the peace- on balance they were for it- but the Brexiteers saw NI- even Unionism- as a second order commitment, not in the end essential compared to escape for England from the vice of Brussels. And so the paradox. A century after partition, a British PM was willing to try anything to sort his ‘Irish problem’. Instrumentalism was back in. For Boris, get Brexit done meant removing the ‘obstacle’ of Northern Ireland, and dealing with the costs later, maybe.But the Irish problem was and is that the Good Friday Agreement – or at least the spirit of reconciliation and tolerance which was its purpose – is destroyed by the hard borders which are the purpose of Brexit. So getting Brexit done meant sidelining all of that. Unable and unwilling to enforce a border in Ireland, the UK government agreed that the problem should be resolved by controls within its own territory. And so this time we got the border in the Irish Sea.As we hit 100 years, it is hard, these days, to detect much ‘celebration’ of the Irish border. Nationalists, not surprisingly, see it as Ireland’s greatest historical injustice, something to be mourned and reversed and given no encouragement. But as the consequences of the Brexit deal sinks in, Unionism finds itself in a tail-spin, with no obvious project except the continuous negative refusal of Irish unity.

The story from here is hard to read. The DUP, having supported Brexit now finds itself in a political situation which is simply impossible The centre ground is growing and that at least is promising. One article today said that, for every vote which the DUP loses to groups to the right of it, it loses three to the Alliance Party. I heard Dennis Murray, former BBC Northern Ireland Political Correspondent in an interview today about the centenary. He suggested that Northern Ireland has some years left in it because that suits the main players in Britain and Ireland. Maybe … but the pace of change everywhere in Britain and Ireland is quickening by the day.

Dream Deferred

Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem – written in the year of my birth 1951 – says this:

What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.

      Or does it explode?

A comment in the Church Times from Canon Mark Oakley pointed me towards these lines and I used Dream Deferred as the title for a Quiet Morning last Wednesday. The poem seems to me to say something haunting about the experience – the constraint – of lockdown. And since a Quiet Morning seems to have plenty of talk in it, I had time to explore it.

I was with the clergy of the two Church of Ireland Dioceses of Tuam, Killala and Achonry and Limerick and Killaloe – two dioceses which will soon join together. Zoom in these moments is amazing. I was at home in Edinburgh – the clergy, lay readers and others were stretched all along the western seaboard of Ireland from Westport in the North to Dingle in the far south west. There were 53 of them involved. Online meetings make sense when you consider the travel time and cost involved in moving from one end of the country to the other.

Much of what I learned from them had echoes in our experience in Scotland. We have similar challenges in sustaining a presence across huge geographical spaces and with relatively small numbers. We too have found that endless amalgamations and groupings don’t necessarily achieve what is needed – better by far to identify and put in place some indigenous ministry presence in each place. So I listened to people introducing themselves – a relatively small number of stipendiary clergy working with auxiliaries, lay readers and others. A real patchwork of committed ministry.

We talked of course about Covid, about lockdown – about how we have experienced the constraints of that personally. And we talked about how it has affected ministry. We talked about dreams deferred. The real challenge was to explore together how the pandemic will have changed our society – and there can be little doubt that it will be found to have brought fundamental changes – and how we in the church will need to respond.

Thought for the Day

I’m still doing a regular Thought for the Day for BBC Scotland. One of the really great things of the Covid era is that I no longer have to be in the Studio to broadcast at 7.22 am – just nip upstairs for ten minutes and it’s done!


In this Easter season we dare to hope that a new and brighter future is beginning to beckon beyond the pandemic.  Easter is always linked to springtime with fresh flowers and brighter days.  And spiritually it is a springtime of hope – hope in death defeated and evil overcome.

I guess that for most of us, it will be enough just to get back to some kind of normal – freedom to move around, to meet family and friends, to socialise and to go on holiday.  But, even if we are not yet aware of it, the trauma of the pandemic will have brought fundamental changes to our society.   We have all suffered but the price has been paid more by some than others – the elderly, the poor more than the rich, BAME communities.  Then there are the lost jobs and ruined businesses. Change will come.

In 1945, the world emerged from another long agony – the horrors of World War II – brought to an end by the inhuman agony of the atom bomb and leading to the uncovering of the holocaust.  People were exhausted – time out for recovery would have been understandable – unimaginable amounts of money had been spent and needed to be repaid.  It sounds familiar.

But terrible conflict had actually cleared the way for change.  And within just a few years, the social map of Britain had altered drastically.  The 1944 Education Act had already made secondary education free and available for all.  Then in 1948 came the founding of the NHS with its promise of healthcare free for all at the point of delivery.  And it is the same NHS which has brought us through the Covid pandemic at huge financial cost but even more personal and emotional cost for its staff.

Those changes of the 1940’s graced our society – astonishing in their vision and commitment to the flourishing of all.  They actually transcended everyday politics.  At this moment, we hope again – hope for nothing less.

Writing Faith

My parishioners used to say that they ‘did not know what they were supposed to believe.’  I never quite knew how to respond to that.  But I always wondered.  Because when the moment came ……….it was very clear that they knew exactly.  They might not have been able to speak it.  But they were experts in deep faith deployed with dignity.  Or, to put it another way, they had the ‘faith thing’ of being able to face both life and death calm and unafraid.

Those wonderful people taught me that the church doesn’t function primarily on theological concepts or dogma elegantly defined.  What builds it and sustains it is faith and trust, relationships, openness and honesty, a passion for justice .. and many more.  As I write that, I wonder if that kind of faith maybe doesn’t transmit very easily to those who are not part of it.  And it may just be vulnerable to idealised pictures of how things were in the past.  But that isn’t its fault.

Stephen Cottrell, the new Archbishop of York, has just written a book called ‘Dear England.’  He is a person worth listening to because he has a breadth of involvement – being both President of Affirming Catholicism and Chair of the Church Army Board.

I slightly tripped over ‘Dear England’ – immediately brought back to John Major’s George Orwell reference to elderly ladies ‘bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist.’   And then I wondered what a ‘Dear Scotland’ letter might look like.  And I’ve been thinking about that ever since.

He began at the Costa Coffee stall at Paddington Station where a young woman asked him ‘why I was a priest.’  To which he replied that it was because, ‘I believed in God, that I believed that God was made known in Jesus, that I believed that God wanted, through Jesus and through me, to change the world and that God was going to do it by changing my heart.’

This not a ‘simple guide to Christian faith’.  It is a passionate attempt to set out a coherent way of coming to terms with faith and living it with integrity in society.

I’ll come back another day to what he says about Covid – and about the relationships of the nations of the British Isles and the relationship with Europe.

But for now I’m going to go on thinking about that Dear Scotland letter


John Hume

The Church Times asked me to write briefly about John Hume who died yesterday. It will take generations to bring Northern Ireland to the point where it is at peace with itself, its painful memories and its history. But the contribution of John Hume and his generation was get to a point where the history and the memories were no longer costing lives. Many of us would regard that as more than we ever expected to see in our lifetimes – John Hume was one of the major figures who make that possible

Never a showy or a band-standing politician – John Hume’s intelligent leadership and dogged persistence were central to Ireland’s long march away from violence and towards peace.  The most intractable conflicts across the world are those which feed on a tribal mixture of religion, politics, identity and painful memory.  John Hume’s example in Northern Ireland showed that even these conflicts can yield their toxic power to determined and long-term efforts in the cause of peace.

I left school at 18 in Belfast in 1969 as the Troubles were beginning.  I was 46 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.  Through all that time and beyond, John Hume gave hope to my generation that better times might come.

Two of John Hume’s achievements are particularly important.

The first was that he internationalised the conflict.  Irish-America, through agencies like Noraid, tended to support a romanticised version of the conflict.  John Hume cultivated the friendship and respect of key Irish-Americans like Edward Kennedy and the friendship of Bill Clinton.  Their involvement in the movement towards peace was to be of fundamental importance.

The second was the Hume-Adams talks – John Hume’s effort to make a pathway for Sinn Fein and the IRA away from politics through drawing Gerry Adams into talks.  He knew that such a process would be messy and that he would be accused of compromise with violence.  But he knew and taught us all that, however costly, such processes are absolutely necessary.  For John Hume and the SDLP, the cost was the growth of Sinn Fein as a political force which came to eclipse their own party.  Such personal and political sacrifice are rare and precious. They were the essence of the political capacity and the spiritual depth of a truly remarkable man

A blessing and not ..

Why has it taken me so long to get into Podcasts? After all they provide what is missing from much of mainstream reporting – a chance to explore a subject in some depth and often with one of the ‘behind the scenes’ people rather than one of the main actors.

Spotify helps too – and it happens that the length of time it takes me to drive from home to St Peter’s, Lutton Place, in Edinburgh where I remain for the time being as interim pastor is exactly the length of the average podcast.

So this morning I listened to a New York Times podcast which featured Chris Hughes who is a Facebook co-founder and a college room-mate of Mark Zuckerberg. He said some interesting things – chiefly that he didn’t necessarily agree with the proposition that putting people in touch is a self-evident good. He questioned the power – and in particular the monopoly power – of Facebook and suggested that it was time the company was broken up.

It’s been clear to me for a long time that the internet in general and Facebook in particular puts power – of a kind – without any accountability into the hands of literally anybody who has a keyboard. That’s where internet abuse comes from and I’ve experienced my share of that in leadership.

But of course there is always another side. In the middle of a stream of photos and comments on Alison’s 50 year school reunion in Dublin last weekend was a comment from somebody who wasn’t part of it – asking about my paternal grandfather in ministry in Kilkenny. Her father was the joiner and cabinet maker who made some furniture for them and ecclesiastical furniture for the Cathedral. Yes that’s the back story of the monk’s bench in our hall and the simple Celtic Cross which is also there … And while I knew that story as a piece of ill-defined family history, it was Facebook which put me directly in touch with it.

Vocation and Ministry Sunday

If you are old enough to remember Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in, you will recall the dread fate of being stuck in a lift watching old Tony Curtis movies. I doing a bit of re-ordering old sermons at present – and I get the same kind of feeling.

Vocation and Ministry Sunday turns up regularly – but it would never have occurred to me to explore the idea that a congregation has a vocation.

I’m still acting as Interim Pastor at St Peter’s, Lutton Place. This is the sermon from this morning and it explores that theme