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  • Writer's picturePaul Coulter

A seismic change? Northern Ireland politics and the real world

I don’t often blog about politics in Northern Ireland. It’s a sure way to lose friends locally and confuse readers more widely. I couldn’t help it today, though, as I listen to analysis of the results of our election for the Stormont (Northern Ireland) Assembly. The emergence of Sinn Fein as the largest party – the first time a pro-Irish union party has topped the poll and held the largest number of seats – has been described as a ‘seismic shift’ for Northern Ireland. I can’t help but make some comment. If you want to skip to the biblical bit, feel free [it’s the paragraph starting “That’s quite enough …”].

I am trying to wrestle with how I feel about this development. It isn’t straightforward. I am Northern Ireland born and bred, but I am married to a Chinese Malaysian. My four great-grandfathers signed the Ulster Covenant in 1912 to express their ardent opposition to rule of Ireland from Dublin, a key event in the build up to the partition of Ireland and formation of Northern Ireland in 1921. I, by contrast, have little strong feeling for the union – I am preferentially unionist mainly because it is what I have been used to (and also because I work for an England-based organisation). I had a phase in my university says of enjoying and identifying with Irish culture, and am still happy to call myself Irish as well as British, but I am not sure I would feel completely at home in a united Ireland.

More importantly, I struggle with the fact that a party like Sinn Fein, which will not condemn past violence on the part of the IRA, should be in power. I try to understand why people vote for them – I assume because they give a strong voice to the Catholic community and because they can metaphorically bloody the noses of some Unionist politicians who are (and on this I agree) arrogant and disrespectful of Irish culture (and especially the Irish language). But I cannot see how Sinn Fein, which, for so long, was universally acknowledged by commentators to be the political wing of the IRA, can lead Northern Ireland (or Ireland, given that they are predicted to become the largest party in the Republic before long too) into a united future. I fear they cannot win the hearts of Ulster Protestants and I have yet to see the evidence that they even want to. I am also concerned about the fact that they are one of the most socially so-called ‘liberal’ parties in Ireland, having supported the introduction of abortion and same-sex marriage.

It is important to keep this in perspective. Sinn Fein, despite some misinformation in some BBC news reports, did not win a majority of votes or seats (both are under one third). There are still more unionist than nationalist members of the Assembly and the total share of the vote for unionists is also higher than for nationalists, whilst many of those who voted for the Alliance Party are in favour of maintaining the union (that party is not officially either pro- or anti-union but supports the status quo until a clear majority want to change it and attracts more votes from Protestant areas than Catholic areas). Furthermore, turnout was just under 64%, so the vote share for Sinn Fein does not reflect the views of as big a percentage of Catholics as one might think.

It is also important to realise that most of the votes lost by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which was formerly the largest party, went to the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), which won 7.6% of the vote. That result should have secured it around 6 seats in the 90-strong Assembly, but the distribution of votes and the way votes are transferred in the Single Transferrable Vote system left them with only one seat. Still, their growth was the largest factor in the decline of the DUP and TUV is just as strongly unionist, just as socially conservative and just as adamantly opposed to the Northern Ireland Protocol (that aspect of the Brexit agreement struck by Boris Johnson with European Union that keeps Northern Ireland in the EU customs region and places a customs border down the Irish Sea) as the DUP. Not a single Unionist politician in this election campaigned on a ticket that did not oppose the Protocol and I, like most people I know, have serious reservations about it (although that might be largely, in my case, because I had to pay £60 for a pet passport for my dog to go to England with us!!)

Nevertheless, it seems hard to deny that these results are at least of immense symbolic significance. I cannot deny that, however justified some of my great-grandfathers’ fears may have been, the Northern Ireland state was designed to give a Unionist majority and that its implementation for many years gave preferential treatment to Protestants. I also feel a deep-seated guilt every time I remember that the demographic map of contemporary Northern Ireland shows the story of a Plantation in which my ancestors from Scotland (and perhaps a few from England?) were the winners – the Protestant community is still concentrated in the better farming land. I know that guilt is false – it wasn’t me – and that the story is more complicated than I suggest – there were faults on both sides – but I suppose what I am saying is that I don’t know deep down if I deserve to live in this beautiful corner of the world. I don’t feel entirely at home. I suppose marrying an immigrant and raising two mixed-race children only adds to that.

That’s quite enough about Northern Ireland and probably more self-disclosure than is entirely helpful. I think the important thing for me at this time is to hear something I preached this morning in a church in Belfast: “the world that we see around us now is not the totality of the real world”. In this is my hope. When I look at Northern Ireland politics or the news from Ukraine and when I try to work out who I am culturally and where I belong nationally, I am only seeing part of the picture. For this morning’s message, I was given Luke 9:18-38 to speak from. That passage records the conversation Jesus had with His disciples about His identity. First, He asked who people said He was. Then He asked them what they said. In response to Peter’s declaration that he was the Christ, He began to foretell His coming death in language that majors on the human perspective on it – rejection and death (two later predictions in Luke add shame and flogging to these).

This is Jesus from a human perspective, through physical eyes that see only the material reality. This physical world is real, of course. Ireland is real and so are its political problems and cultural challenges. The lives of its people matter. But Jesus showed three of His disciples that there is an alternative perspective on this world. He took them up a mountain and there they saw Him ‘transfigured’. Their physical eyes were given the ability to see what is always true but normally invisible – the kingdom of God in which Jesus shone with glory and was accompanied by servants of God long-dead. When Peter misunderstood and tried to build tents to keep Moses and Elijah along with Jesus – a double error in that he wanted to honour all three equally and to keep the glorious Jesus without Him going to the cross – their ears were also enabled to hear what is always said but not usually heard – the Father’s expression of love for and joy in His Son and the call to listen to Him.

This is the real world. Not only the material reality we see every day, but also the spiritual realm that is normally hidden. The kingdom of God is growing alongside and within the world as we know it. And in that ultimate reality Jesus is central – not one prophet and teacher among many, but the unique Son of the Father. Furthermore, His death looks different. Not a human action of rejection and shame, but a divine plan enacted. Planned by the Father, foretold by prophets and accomplished by Jesus Himself. The word ‘departure’ used to describe what Moses and Elijah talked with Jesus about is exodus in the Greek. That word is full of meaning, especially when we realise that Moses, who led God’s people in the original exodus was with him. Just as God redeemed His people from Egyptian slavery, delivered them from His judgement through the Passover lamb, and brought them out to journey to the Promised Land, so Jesus would redeem His people from slavery to sin, deliver them from God’s judgement through the sacrifice of Himself, and bring them out to live in the real world of God’s Kingdom until He returned for them in glory.

This is the real world. The world in which Christ is King. On the basis of this revelation, Jesus, in the verses between the two passages I’ve just commented on (verses 23-27), calls us to follow Him. He tells us to deny ourselves, to take up our cross daily and to follow Him. I suppose that won’t mean I don’t care at all about Northern Ireland politics or whatever other stories are in the news, but I am sure it will change how I think about them. My priority will be to die to my own desires – in the Northern Ireland political context that will include my desire for a comfortable status quo or a settlement that privileges me and my kind – and to live for Jesus – that must surely mean that my priority will be freedom to share the gospel and a result commitment not to confuse the glory of Christ with the power of any political party or national identity.

The call to follow Jesus is not a call to exit this world and cease to be involved in it, but it is a call to live in it by a different regime – God’s rule – and as a witness to what, by faith if not with our physical eyes and ears, we have seen and heard – that Jesus Christ is Lord.

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