In the wake of Lyra McKee’s death, there were immediate calls for an end to violence; Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill were both quick to condemn the taking of life. But I am fearful we are in a similar cycle to the US gun debate: A massacre takes place. There is national mourning. There is impassioned debate, but no change. Another massacre takes place…
Our own cycle looks something like this: A life is taken. There is shock and grief. There is talk about how this needs to end. There are some protests, but nothing substantial changes. Another life is taken.
The cycle needs to be broken. While gun massacres are considered by many (or, at least, enough) to be an acceptable cost for Second Amendment rights, nothing is going to change. Similarly, while we tell negative narratives that sustain suspicion and fear, there will always be hatred and anger. Sometimes anger with another section of our community expresses itself in protest. Irish history demonstrates the capacity for angry protest to become violent. On occasion, events escalate out of control just as they did in Derry last week.
Let me suggest two factors that might have helped create this cycle.
Firstly, in the mid to late nineties, were we more focussed on bringing the violence to an end, than thinking about what the future might look like? I don’t mean that to sound wholly critical, we were exhausted in the nineties. As one commentator said, we “fought ourselves to a standstill”; we knew we couldn’t continue as we were and maybe we were drained of the energy to be imaginative. Was the net result that we weren’t fully committed to building a sustainable peace?
Secondly, and consequently, at this ‘standstill’, would it be fair to say we brought (most of) the physical conflict to an end, but have continued fighting verbally? There was no outright winner, but rather than accept compromise, for many, a ‘win’ is still possible, so now we’re competing in words.
Of course, it’s not just the fault of our political leaders. We have given them their place. We replaced the two leading parties (who had found a compromise back in 1973) with parties who cannot currently find a compromise (and helped bring about the collapse of the previous power sharing) and seem to have little desire to try.
We are the ones who need to break the cycle. We need much more than the condemnation of violence, important as that is. We need to change the narrative. To choose our words carefully, holding back, not stoking fear. To extend grace and generosity when it is reasonable to do so. To admit the limitations in our own viewpoints, and seek other perspectives. To intentionally build trust across all the fractures in our society.
Most of all, we need to ask ourselves seriously, ‘what type of society do we want to leave for future generations?’ As Eugene Peterson said, “we are defined by what we embrace, not what we resist.” It’s time to start defining what the future looks like in positive terms and then work towards it. It isn’t going to happen by accident, and if it doesn’t happen, sadly, Lyra McKee’s life will become one more curve in an ongoing cycle.