Have we become helpless in the face of change or can we manage the future? More and more people talk about the emptiness of modern life, they wonder where meaning is coming from and what values are shaping us; they say it is not easy being young today in spite of the choices and the freedom.
We cannot assume that if we simply sit back and comment the storm will blow over, or that we will return to the old ways. The fact is we are experiencing a cultural transformation, we are witnessing the passing of a tradition, the end of an era. Every day we hear questions like Why arent they doing something about it? or Who is responsible for this, that or the other? It is time to ask: Have I got any responsibility for the way things are?
ABOUT THE EDITOR
Fr. Harry Bohan, Chairman of the Ceifin Centre, qualified as Sociologist in the University of Wales and is currently Director of Pastoral Planning in Diocese of Killaloe and Parish Priest in Sixmilebridge, Co Clare. Believing in family and community as the two vital systems in fostering human relationships he founded the Rural Resource Organisation. This organisation was responsible for encouraging communities across Ireland to participate in determining their own future and resulted in the building of 2,500 houses in 120 villages, in 13 counties.
In 1998 he founded the Ceifin Centre for Values-Led Change to carry on the conversation on the direction Ireland is taking. The purpose of Ceifin is to reflect, debate and direct values-led change in Irish society. He was appointed to the Task Force on Active Citizenship by an Taoiseach in 2006.
Recognised as one of the leading social commentators in Ireland today Fr Bohan has written extensively on the subjects of christianity, spirituality and economic development, the importance of the local responding to the global and on understanding change. His books published include Roots in a changing Society and Community and the Soul of Ireland and he is editor and contributor to all 10 previous books of published papers from Ceifin Conferences. He has broadcast widely on national radio and television. Fr Harry is also well known for his involvement in sport and Clare Hurling in particular.
Gerard Kennedy is the co-editor of this book.
Fr Harry Bohan has been a priest in the diocese of Killaloe for over fifty years. A qualified sociologist, he is a pioneer in the areas of rural housing and community development. He established the Céifin Centre in 1998, a think tank for values-led change. One of Ireland’s leading social commentators, he has written substantially about Christianity, spirituality and economic development. A hurling enthusiast, he is also former manager of the Clare hurling team.
Harry Bohan and Gerard Kennedy edit this selection of essays which give pointers as to how we can meet with responsibility the challenges of a changing world and discover a spirituality adequate to this purpose.
- Catholic Ireland
- CHAPTER 1: Why is the future my responsibility?
Thank you all for having me here this evening to address this conference. As you are aware, of course, this conference is built around a question: Is the future my responsibility? The simple answer to that question, as you would all agree, is Yes. But in developing that answer I believe it is important that we address the more fundamental question, which is, why is the future my responsibility? And I am reminded this evening of the words of Charles Kettering, who once said, My interest is in the future, because I am going to spend the rest of my life there. As you all are. And how right he was. Because the future, or more appropriately, what type of future it is we wish to live in, is the single most important question now facing our country, indeed the entire world. It is something that should engage us all, because our actions today will have real and direct consequences for our children and for future generations. And for that very reason, I feel that it is crucial that we, in this country, at this particular time, should opt to seek out new and better political paths to follow. I am talking particularly about the Northern part now: In doing so, to leave behind the outdated politics of confrontation and of bigotry and to leave it where it belongs, in the past.
Let us build a new future together. We owe it to ourselves and to each other but even more so we owe it to future generations. Having experienced our past, we owe it to them to create a new society in which diversity is a source of strength and not a source of division, in which difference is respected and not fought about. As many of you would know perhaps, I am a very strong advocate of European Union for very many reasons. The European Union is not merely an economic tool or a social tool or a tool for cultural change , it is of course all of those, but at its very heart lies the philosophy that, in my opinion, contains the key to conflict resolution in every corner of the world, the blueprint for developing the full potential of diversity, and respect for diversity and difference, which is central to peace in the world.
The century we have just left was the worst in the history of the world with two world wars in the first half of it. By 1945, Europe appeared to be totally divided, millions of people were dead. People in 1945 had just emerged from the second bloody and bitter world war of that century. In my own town , I was a child at the time , we had to go out and live in what we called air-raid shelters. Part of our city was bombed. The principles of respect, of tolerance, of partnership, and the development of common economic interest, in those days, appeared to be unobtainable. Yet, within a few years, the understanding that human beings cannot live apart prevailed, and today the European Union stands as a most vibrant testimony to the ideal that we are all better working with each other and for each others.
I have to tell you that the European Union has been a very powerful inspiration to the development of my own philosophy. I always tell the story of when I was first elected to the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 1979. I went there and I went for a walk and I walked across the bridge from Strasbourg in France to Kie1 in Germany because they are that close. I stopped in the middle and I meditated. I thought: Good Lord, 1979, if I had stood on this bridge thirty years ago in 1949 when the Second World War had just ended and thirty five million people had been slaughtered for the second time in a century, and said then, Dont worry, in thirty years time we will be all together; united, and the French will still be French and the German will still be German, I would have been sent to a psychiatrist. But it has happened and, therefore, it is the duty of everyone, in every area of conflict, to study how and why it happened, because it is the best example in the history of the world of conflict resolution.
The principles at the heart of the European Union, in my opinion, are principles that will solve conflict, and when you study it, you will find that they are also the principles at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement in the North. Principle number one: respect for difference, no victory for either side. Principle number two: institutions that respect the differences, a Council of Ministers from all countries, a European Commission from all countries and a European Parliament from all countries. And principle number three: most important of all, working together in their common interests and breaking down the barriers of centuries. The new Europe has evolved and is still evolving. That lesson is there for all areas of conflict.
At the end of the day, if you stop and think, if you are forced to, if you have lived through what we have lived through over the last thirty years, and watched one out of five hundred people in the North lose their lives, and one out of fifty being maimed and injured, you have to think not only how can we stop this, but how can we give the same philosophy to people elsewhere who might be suffering? Because all conflict is about the same thing, no matter where it is , it is about difference, whether the difference is your race, your religion or your nationality. The answer to difference, therefore, is to respect it. As I often say, difference is an accident of birth , none of us chose to be born; we didnt choose to be born into any nationality, any religion or any race. Therefore, it is not something that we should fight about. It is something we should respect. Difference is of the essence of humanity , there are not two people in this room who are the same. There are not two people in the whole human race who are the same. Therefore, we should respect difference and create societies in which diversity is respected and which understand that this is the very essence of unity. This is a deep lesson for this country. Unity is not about one side defeating or taking over another. It is about real respect for difference and it is one from which I wont waver because I think it is the right course of action.
What we have seen in the North is the greatest tragedy of a generation, and the people of Ireland, all of us, have lived through it. The disastrous consequences of people not facing up to their responsibilities for the future, the terror and tragedy of the Troubles, we have all endured the bloodshed and suffering and the terrible political inertia in facing up to the problem. But we have also seen the unquenchable hope encapsulated by ordinary people who lived through it. As I said in my Nobel Peace Prize speech in 1998, Amid shattered lives, a quiet heroism has borne silent rebuke to the evil that violence represents, to the carnage and waste of violence and to its ultimate futility. Violence has no part to play in the future of our country. It has played a terrible part in our history and, in so doing, it has undermined each generations chances to shape their future in new and exciting ways. I have always been and always will oppose violence. I was very heavily inspired in my early days by the philosophy of Martin Luther King when I was one of the early members of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. Of course, throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties, I stood in total opposition to all of the violence, naturally, and indeed when I engaged in dialogue with Gerry Adams. Our joint statement made clear that the objective of our dialogue was to bring violence to an end.
Since then another organisation has emerged, calling itself the Real IRA, perpetrating the worst atrocity of the past three decades by killing twenty-nine people and two unborn children in one day in Omagh. Yes, we are not only opposed to it today, we are opposed to it tomorrow and the next day and all days because it has no place at all in society. The people behind it must come to realise that their day is over and they must also realise that, despite whatever philosophies they have been handed down from the past, it is the people of this island that are divided, not the territory. And when people are divided, what does violence do? It deepens the division and makes the problem more difficult to solve. And nobody using it can claim to be seeking human rights because they are undermining the most fundamental human right of all , the right to life.
We must work to replace all of that with hope. We must concentrate on addressing the real issues that face our society real politics , poverty, unemployment, poor quality housing, low standards in health care, roads, real human rights, real standards of living, so that we can pray in Ireland that our young people can, at last, all earn a living in the land of their birth.
My first political lesson came when I was ten years old in Derry. The Nationalist Party was holding, as it did in those years, an election meeting on the streets, with loudspeakers on the backs of lorries. I was standing with my father, who was unemployed. They were whooping up emotions and waving the flags, and I was getting emotional too. My father put his hand on my shoulder and said, Listen son, dont you go getting involved in that stuff: I said, Why not Dad? He said, You cant eat a flag: Think of the wisdom of that. The political parties that use the national flag as their emblem are undermining the value of it because it is supposed to represent the unity of the people of the country and if political parties use it as they do in the North it becomes very divisive. I have always believed that through tackling the issues that matter to the people in their day-to-day lives we can find the common ground that will unite our people. Waving the flag is waving two different colours at one another.
Of the three principles at the heart of the European Union and the Good Friday Agreement, the third principle is the most important , working together in our common interests, what I call the healing process. Now that our institutions are in place, the public representatives from the different sections of the community and between North and South will be working together. And as they do that, we will then be spilling our sweat not our blood, breaking down the barriers of the past distrust by working the common ground together, the real healing process. The real border in this country is not a line on a map, it is in the minds and the hearts of people, and that border cannot be removed by victory of one side over another. It can only be removed by the healing process that builds the trust, that breaks down the barriers of mistrust over centuries and by working together we will do that.
Just as the new Europe has evolved, the dream and hope is that the new Ireland will evolve based on agreement and respect for difference. And it will be real unity if it is a united people based on agreement. You are not united if it is not agreed and you have a divided people, then the quarrel continues. Real unity, and of course, unity through republicanism involving Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, means living together in equality and harmony. I listen to some people calling themselves Republicans, talking about uniting Ireland with guns and bombs, but how can you unite Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters with a gun and a bomb? Will we please at last learn that lesson, because it is taking a long time to do so?
I believe, also, through the creation of new employment and new opportunities, and working in real politics in this country, North and South, that our young people will be given a new lease of hope. I want to live, and I am sure that you do too, in an Ireland that is at work, an Ireland in which our young people can participate in the highest possible standards of training and education, have decent jobs, and live in the land of their birth. The tide of emigration may have turned over the past ten years, but the imperative is to create a rising tide of prosperity and opportunity that will lift our communities out of disadvantage and into employment, that will breathe new life into our cities, our towns and our rural areas. I want the people of Ireland to focus on creating a better future for us all and for our young people in particular.
In March 1982, I was delivering the same speech to two different audiences in two churches in Belfast , one Protestant and one Catholic , on consecutive evenings. I pointed out that many people in Northern Ireland had a compulsive desire to live in the past; nearly all the slogans about politics were about the past , remember 1690, remember this, remember that. I said then that we all have a choice whether or not to indulge in an endless sterile exchange of whataboutery. What about was the most favoured phrase in elections, starting with the outrage that suits us , you know; what about the outrages of violent men? What about the sectarian murders? What about discrimination? What about 1912? What about 1916? What about 1689, the siege of Derry? What about 1641? And so on. Each what about being used to justify another tragedy. And to claim credit for it, another what about. Let us instead now ask ourselves just one question , what about the future?
The Good Friday Agreement has provided us all with that opportunity to leave the past behind and to focus on building a new and agreed Ireland. We must take that chance and we must take it now: It is our best hope for a future of peace, of hope and of opportunity. It is our absolute responsibility to deliver that Agreement in its entirety. It is your Agreement, and the most historic thing to happen in that Agreement, and I am very happy that it was myself that proposed it, is that when the Agreement is reached the last word would be with the people and not the politicians. And the people of Ireland as a whole came out in strength and ninety per cent of people in the South voted yes for that Agreement, and seventy-two per cent in the North. So for the first time in our history, the people of Ireland had spoken of how they wished to live together and, for that reason, none of the violent organisations can now claim, as they always have done, that they are seeking the self-determination of the Irish people.
It is the duty of all true democrats to implement the will of the people and that is what is now happening. The institutions, are now bedding down, the process of decommissioning of weapons has begun, and the new Police Service of Northern Ireland has begun its work. It is a time of change and a time of challenge, but I believe the Pro-Agreement parties are ready to lead the community through those changes and meet those challenges, and we in the North owe deep gratitude to the leaders of the parties in the D?íil who have put peace in our land at the top of their agenda. I am certain today that the outlook for our future is brighter than it has been before.
Ireland can become a great place to live and to grow in the new century and the new millennium. We are duty-bound to make sure it does. We are living through two of the biggest revolutions in the history of the world , the technological telecommunications and transport revolutions , which have made the world a much smaller place, and that strengthens our ability because we are one of the wandering peoples in the world, as you know, because of emigrations of the past. There are seventy million people today across the world of Irish descent. Now that we are living in a smaller world we can harness that strength. As I have said often in speeches in the South, I would like to see the Government of the Republic issuing a certificate of Irish identity to people all over the world who are of Irish descent. Think of the strength that would bring to our little island, in economic terms alone. Just imagine if every one of them only spent ten euro a week on something Irish? Think of the strength that would give us in influencing the world and helping the smaller world, particularly the Third World, the countries that are suffering terribly from deprivation and starvation. We could not only be sending to such countries money and food, which is only part-time assistance, but real help that will help them stand on their own feet. The best thing you can do for any people is make sure that they have a full-scale system of education, to the highest level, open to all sections of the people. The only wealth we have is human beings. Without human beings any piece of earth is only a jungle. It is human beings who create, and the more equipped they are to create the more they will do it. It is education that does this and when the history of this country is studied you will discover that the economic regeneration really began when education was provided and the people, the young people, took advantage of that and became the creators. And, as I say, we can help the smaller world and the Third World a lot. Because of the Diaspora we can become a very important people in that world.
I cannot state my opposition to racism and bigotry strongly enough. As I have said earlier, it is an accident of birth what we are born and where we are born and we shouldnt be fighting about it. We should be respecting it. And Ireland, I hope, in the new century and the new millennium, will be multi-cultural and dynamic and will have true unity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. In the North, I hope that our framework will develop the potential of diversity that can be applied to the island as a whole. I want to live, and I am sure you do too, in an Ireland that is caring, an Ireland which takes care of our most vulnerable and the most weak in our society and does not ignore them , real politics. An Ireland which is safe and free and happy , real politics. I want to live in an Ireland which is tackling poverty as our first and last priority. And let me ask you: is it right that a single person in our society should be allowed to live in poverty? Is it right that anyone should be homeless? Is it right that children should be hungry? These are all realities facing society today. These are the challenges that face us today , the challenge of real politics. Not eating flags. Tackling the social and economic needs of the people means working the common ground that unites our people, and thats what we should do.
I hope, and I am determined to do my part with my party, that the challenges of today will become the successes of tomorrow. This is my wish for the future. I know that perhaps it may be ambitious given our recent past, but when ambition, determination and vision all cross each other, anything is possible, and I am confident that we in Ireland can face into the future, a future that is, indeed, all of our responsibility, with real confidence and real conviction. And the creation here of C?®ifin, an institute for values-led change, is ideal, both in its timing and in its philosophy. The revolution we are living through, particularly in telecommunications and television, has undermined the sense of neighbourhood, the sense of community, and stopped a lot of communication, but organisations of this nature can naturally redevelop the community interests of the past.
I always tell of when I was a child growing up on our streets. We didnt have television, we all walked to school together, nobody had cars, we all walked back together, we played games in the streets together, our parents went next door and sat having cups of tea and chatting to one another communication was normal all the time. That has been reduced abnormally by the telecommunications world. Parents dont even, much of the time, talk to their children; they are all sitting watching television. One main objective of this institute, which I feel is very visionary, is to restore that kind of work, that type of society where communities become communities again and where we meet regularly and discuss our common problems and our common enjoyments. And I hope the existence of a movement such as this will concentrate our minds on the challenges that lie ahead of us at community level and at national level. Let us hope that very soon in this new century we will have a new Ireland and that the principles that build it can also be taken to other areas of conflict in the world and that we can, at last, have centuries and millenniums where there are no conflicts and no wars and where human beings respect their common humanity.