Ladies and gentlemen it is a delight and an honour to be with you tonight and to be invited to give this address at the St. Patrick Centre here in Downpatrick, just a short walk from St. Patrick’s grave. It’s nice to be doing so as a native of this county and to be back in the county town. I would like to thank the leaders of the Centre and the Board for this kind invitation. I would also like to pay particular tribute at the outset to someone of outstanding integrity and professionalism, Margaret Ritchie. Just two nights ago in London your work was being fondly remembered by the former Taoiseach, Dr. John Bruton. Margaret, you have inspired us all these past years in your own personal battle with illness and I know that you have given confidence to so many families and people in the challenges they face. We are all proud of you and what you have achieved.
Ladies and gentlemen, the topic you have set me this evening is not easy. It’s not easy because often it is simpler for people to talk about other places, to keep it professional and distant rather than to talk about that which is personal to them or immediate. This evening, I suspect for most of us, the topic is neither distant nor simply professional, but up close and personal.
Roughly at this hour on this Friday night in 1998 some 20 odd miles in another direction, but in the county, agreement was reached on what was officially known as the Belfast Agreement, or popularly known as the Good Friday Agreement. Twenty-one years on we are still discussing that Agreement and tonight another deadline loomed large, that of the 12th April and the day the country, in its entirety could have simply rolled out of the European Union. That was averted in the early hours of yesterday morning. Now our next deadline is Halloween!
So tonight as we talk about St. Patrick, a shared society and reconciliation, I’m afraid we can’t keep it distant and remote, it must be alive and real. It must have a context. If it doesn’t have a context then then I’m afraid we are simply avoiding reconciliation and how to understand and listen to the other, we are simply affirming our own perspective.
I want to do three things in the short time we have together. I want to say something about society so that we simply do not assume we are talking about a notion which we think we all know about and agree on, but which actually is viewed very differently depending on our perspective. Parallel meanings and discussions can be fatal in a society. So clarifying what society actually is and why it is important will help us to recognise it and what our place and role is within it.
Second I want to speak of reconciliation, what is it? What are we actually reconciling in this society? Is it theology? Is it political identity? Is it difference? If so what differences? Are we trying to achieve a sort of sameness? Is that consistent with a healthy society? So if difference is fundamental to society, then what do we mean by reconciliation, are we reconciling differences or living with them, simply accepting the other for what they are and accepting them as they are. Are we speaking of reconciliation of groups or about individuals? To speak of reconciliation, we must first know or discern who we are, what are our identities? Again if we are not careful about these terms and what we mean we could find that efforts at reconciliation actually serve simply to diminish our society, to reduce it to a single norm in the name of some ill thought out goal. Our challenge in this task of reconciliation is not to reduce our differences, not to diminish our society, but to ensure that all our differences which cross us many times and make us unique, enrich the order and the society in which we live, but do not detract from it. A society which would demand sameness or uniformity, would in my opinion cease to be a society. It would become totalitarian. But more about that later.
Third and finally, I want to answer the exam question of what is St. Patrick’s example to us today in the 21st century with regards to a shared society and reconciliation? Twenty one years ago following decades of violence and terror, which many of us lived through, and some of us at the time had not known a different world, that agreement brought about peace. That conflict and the relations on these islands for many centuries now have lived with conflicting and conflating identities where religion has been over-laid onto political-ethno and national identities.
That world differed greatly from the time of St. Patrick, but there are lessons for us as we look to someone who brought to these shores the greatest gift of all, the gift of faith, and that gift has left these shores to go to all corners of the world bringing a faith and a belief that has transformed lives. How is that gift of faith an asset to reconciliation rather than a barrier? How do we ensure that the gift of faith is once again presented in our society and held by or society as a positive identifier rather than a problem to be solved or an impediment to the development of a shared society? Wouldn’t it be an irony if for the sake of a promise of progress or reconciliation, that gift brought to us by St. Patrick would be simply cast aside or marginalised to a private sphere.
As we sit here each as individuals, perhaps with a faith, perhaps not, perhaps as Irish or British or even Northern Irish, but each with a context in which that identity plays out, we have the question of Brexit looming and whether we are European or not, or whether we should be in the EU or not, there is a risk again in our society that that issue could become inter-woven and conflated, as religion did in our past, with our historic differences and contrasting (and sometimes conflicting) identities. We can have different positions on Brexit, as we can on all political choices, but we should be cautious of drifting into positions simply because of other identities, which speak to different parts of our being.
They say in any speech that people really just remember one thing. So here is my attempt to leave you with just one thing. Our title – shared society, reconciliation and St. Patrick. It is said that a picture tells a thousand words. By the end of tonight you might be thinking why didn’t he just bring four pictures! Here is the picture
St. Patrick’s Cathedral and High School, Karachi
A Catholic School, a city of over 20 million, less than 2% Christian. A photo on the wall of the school the former president of Pakistan, pervez musharif and the former Indian Deputy Prime Minister and co-founder of the Indian BJP Hindu nationalist party, Lal Krishna Advani. Two nuclear powers, fought four wars in the last sixty years. And yet a legacy of St. Patrick’s rising out of a city in a far away country, staring from here. What a legacy, what a richness. That school exists, like the convent of Jesus and Mary which is run by two elderly Irish nuns, and educated the world’s first Muslim female Prime Minister, because of a gift of faith, because of something that left these shores, because a society exists that allows for difference, that wants it and that provides a platform for one to encounter the other. Faith, the faith handed on to us by St. Patrick, is not an impediment or a problem to be solved, it is a rich tradition, a living tradition that can be a platform for reconciliation here just as much as it can be on the sub-continent.
The late Margaret Thatcher is often quoted as having said ‘there is no such thing as society’. I think the quote was taken out of context, but more about that later. But when we speak of society what do we mean? Do we believe there is a society? Perhaps you should suspend judgement for a moment. But to speak of society we also have to speak of identity? Society is that which encapsulates the whole, it is not just the state. It is the all. So to ask what is society demands we we know who are we before we answer what are we?
Today at this time in the West and globally more traditional forms of identity, ethnic and religious seem to be pushing back on the more civic forms of identity in our world. People speak of societies rather than society. Identity politics is to the fore. Why is this so? There is no single reason that can be given which will apply across the world. For some in Europe, it might be linked to growing economic inequality or marginalization. In the United States, it might be similar. But regardless of where it is, the causality will be different from the symptoms. If for example, we were to look at the majority Muslim world then the rise of Islam as an identifier is less about religion per-se and more down to other causes, even if the symptom is an increase in religious identity.
In large part, the increase in more ethnic and religious identity comes down to the weakness of other forms of identity and in many cases an instrumentalisation of religion or faith for temporal ends. In some cultures it comes down to the absence of wider society or its conflation with the state so that there is no space for complexity of identities just binary choices. Over recent centuries in the West and at different eras in the Middle East and others civilisations we have managed for the most part to construct societies, which were not binary. At present we could say about our societies that we are all part of a complex set of identities cutting across social, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, economic, and the list could go on. Or could we? Would that apply here in Northern Ireland? Do we have such a society that cuts across? For me society is bigger than the state, they fulfil distinct roles and the state is just one component of the society.
A healthy society will be a plurality which can allow multiple identities to exist and flourish. That would mean a place where religion is not simply tolerated, but can also help to navigate an increasingly the secular world. I do not believe that building a successful society demands the eradication of difference or reducing it to meaningless labels or simply marginalising that which we find different. Rather, it requires an acceptance that differences contribute to a rich society, and those differences are not binary, but transcend us as humans multiple times as they speak to different parts of our complex humanity.
Let me make it personal. We often want to know something about a person, and then run forward with that limited piece of knowledge to assume that we might know everything about them. Binaries work like that but they rarely capture us. I can be Catholic, but what does that say about my views on the economy, sport, immigration, Brexit, etc. I could be a UK citizen and what would that say about my views on a theological question or my attitude to life. I could be Irish and what would that say about how I live my life.
It is not just in these lands that there is a growing pressure which wants to reduce us to binary tribes. We see these tendencies even in advanced democracies. Are you with Trump or against him? Are you a Brexiter or a Remainer? These labels are thrown around as if they somehow split us in to two simple tribes and the rest is history. Such parallel lives and societies can create high levels of intra-cohesion within the group, but it can also create a repressive conformity and at the expense of a wider pluralist society. Who we are cannot be reduced to one simply identifier with everting else flowing from that, humanity is richer than that.
And where would that leave us with Brexit? What does such a debate mean for our identities? Once again we are being asked what we mean by Irish, British, European, Northern Irish. It could be argued that within these islands over the last two centuries our identity was perhaps too broadly shaped or dominated by a political identity, or a national identity which was often conflated with a religious identity. Also it could be argued that we tended to speak of identity in the singular rather than the plural. That focus on the singular often led us towards binary solutions. All fine if a singular identity is widely shared in a homogeneous society, but fatal if homogeneity is not shared. Binary doesn’t work in those complex settings. Complex settings begets complex solutions and surely that is the lesson of the Peace Process.
How are those identities playing out against a backdrop of Brexit and how might that look in the coming century in these islands? I am conscious that the context we are living in contains much uncertainty about the UK’s place in Europe and the world, about relations within the nations of the United Kingdom itself, and also the broader relationship on this Island which has been a perennial issue in recent centuries. Today the division of identity in Britain does not appear to be on religious or national grounds, but it is a division that runs through society and even through political parties about the cohesion within society and about the attitude and place of the UK in the world. Even if the Brexit debate is not conflated with religion or nationality today, we should be alive, conscious of the lessons of history, which can often repeat itself, to the chance that at some point it could become conflated with religion or ethno-nationalism.
Each of us will have a different take on our identity or identiteis because each was born with a unique identity and over time, others have been adopted and formed. Those identities form who we are, provide a frame of reference which can then predict actions or a framework of actions. For me grappling with that question of identity, I define myself as part of a community with a shared set of beliefs. There are obvious elements of our identities which we don’t have to call out in most cases. For example, I’m male and white. But there are other parts of our identity which are not obvious and yet which can have a greater call on how we respond and behave, for example, citizenship, nationality, political and religious or cultural.
So when it comes to identities, it is never binary. We are all parts of a complex set of identities cutting across social, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, economic, and the list could go on. When we try to force the various identities into a binary form, it diminishes who we are the societies we belong to and if taken to an extreme can actually threaten society. But the question is what do our identities tell us about ourselves and what function does it fulfil for us?
Identities really don’t tell us much about ourselves. Rather they tell others about us. They help others in society navigate our complexities. They give frames of reference into which we loosely fit. Some of the identities we can choose, and others we are born with. Some we can give greater importance to and others we can relegate. But all the time our identities are ways to help us integrate and say something about ourselves and how we want to be seen and perceived.
So contrary to the impression that is often given that our identities are somehow only personal declarations of difference (and they are that too) which set us apart, they are fundamentally an aid to help people deal with complexity and to say something more general about who we are and what we stand for in society.
Our task in building a shared society is to help us rediscover a capacity to deal with ever more complex worlds of difference and identities, which we had managed to do successfully for many hundreds of years. But some will tell us that in order to deal with complexity or difference we have to banish it from society.
But that is a false choice because it does not allow for historical context and simply seeks to impose a uniformity (often done so violently) on to our complex worlds. One can thing of the efforts of national socialism in Germany or the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe or what was done in the name of religion across Europe after the Reformations with religious minorities persecuted in the name of uniformity. When viewed with a wider European lens, no Christian denomination had a monopoly on suffering, in different contexts some were the persecuted, others the persecutor and vice versa.
As we build a shared society – or try to – we have to be cognisant of our identities. To integrate them without reducing them. St. Patrick’s living legacy on this island is faith. So how can we approach faith in this context when we speak of reconciliation and a shared society?
History and philosophy both show that when it comes to the place of religion in society for example there is no uniformity of view across the West. 1789 and the French Revolution and the emergence of an all-powerful and dominant state which consumes society is not the story of the UK. Up until recently nor was it the story of Ireland, but Ireland is a Republic and a lot will depend on how that Republican tradition evolves in its second decade of existence. How it relates to religion in the second century of its existence will be very different to the first century, but the risk is that an unhealthy closeness of the first era could be followed by an unequally healthy reaction and marginalisation in the second century.
What underpins pluralism is actually different enlightenment traditions. The French state for example bans the Head Scraf. The US state does not. A good understanding of the enlightenment could help us to provide a framework where contemporary citizens do not have to be either/or but many and both. Showing that the Enlightenment of 1789 in the European tradition is not the same as that of the Pennsylvania mode of 1776 can create a thriving society without faith or ethno-nationalism becoming the basis for state identity.
Societies struggle to deal with the question of what role religion plays or does not play in our respective societies and how it assists or undermines cohesion. That is likely to remain so here for many decades to come. It was an issue at the time of St. Patrick with the new faith being seen by some as threatening an old power order and status.
The risk for us today in trying to build a shared society is that we can think that society must be neutral. To have no one’s traditions or beliefs. Some often drift into such a mode in an uncritical manner. In our contemporary culture, there is an increasingly prominent voice which would suggest that they only way to deal with the differences thrown up by life and complexity is through offering a ‘neutral’ space. In terms of religion it would suggest creating a more privatised form of religion. Something which would push it out of the public sphere and into the private. That ideology would have society believe that competing absolutist claims by faiths should be rejected, but perhaps with one sole exception – that is the absolutist claims that a form of belief exists which should be the sole basis of society with a claim that it is neutral and objective and should, therefore, be the norm. It sounds a lot like older forms of religion that wanted such uniformity.
Such an offer of a ‘level playing field’ one that claims to be neutral and fair and objective, could seduce policy makers and politicians as they try to navigate the complexity of our culture and try to build a shared society. Decision makers will naturally struggle to navigate the diversity that is now a feature of modern societies. How do you build cohesive societies amidst such a growing diversity? Gone are the days of homogeneity when cohesion in society could rely on a common grammar. But if you aim to set out to have a shared society, by creating a neutral society, where differences are reduced to be meaningless or banished, then how is it shared and how is it a society which is enriched by difference? Who decides which differences are to be valued and discarded?
For regulatory authorities faced with such a challenge, it might seem easier to roll back diversity from society and impose a one size fits all approach arguing that it is ‘neutral’, fair, value for money, etc. But if this is done, then what other differences could be rolled back? The new norm, what would it be ‘neutral’ from? And fair to whom? In such a new era whose values would prevail? Who would make those choices and how would that be authentic to our different cultures and traditions? These are live questions for our society and require an intellectual contribution from within the Christian tradition. The tradition brought to us by St. Patrick. One that must be engaged, critically so in this public debate and confident that it brings centuries of experience to the challenge.
But it is not just the state that could retreat from navigating a more complex world. We as groups made up of multiple differences could retreat from navigating the complexity or promoting the distinctiveness of our cultures so that we would just somehow blend in and disappear. Society could therefore just become drab. A sort of greyness would descend which characterised the Warsaw Pact up until the 1990s. Both temptations – blending in or rolling back difference – would be wrong, as they would greatly diminish a culturally rich and diverse society. If St. Patrick had just blended in would we be here today? Would cathedrals such as St. Patrick’s in Karachi stand out as a witness to plurality?
The policy choices we make today will tell us something about the society we want to build and the role of the state within that society and its attitude to difference (and the right to be different). History has shown us numerous examples of how impossible it is to divorce a culture from its past. How faith communities are treated can often be a litmus test for broader freedoms within the society and the place of the individual vis a vis the state. One can think of revolutionary France or the creation of the Soviet Union. Critiques by faith communities can help to reinforce democratic processes in liberal states by ensuring alternative perspectives are heard, and group think is avoided. So a faith perspective not just helps the state through the provision of services, but helps to ensure the very plurality that helps to keep the state liberal i.e. open to challenge. Without challenge, democratic states run the risk of becoming illiberal and fostering a culture of uniformity which can be unhealthy for the future of democracy. Western democracies, including the UK and Ireland need debate and vibrant differences to remain alive and achieve renewal. It is their oxygen. So the debate on a shared society needs engagement from faith groups.
A pluralist approach on the part of the state allows for a variety of voices and providers rather than a singularity of approach. That’s what Thatcher was trying to say in her now infamous quote. A plural space will often be open to greater participation by groups and other organisations and avoid authoritarian tendencies. A truly pluralist society will often be characterised by a weaker state often acting as a regulator, but open to a variety of providers meeting acceptable standards and contributing to the flourishing of wider society.
This belief in pluralism on the part of the state is not alien to the Christian tradition of St. Patrick – it is central to it, but was not always practised, especially in our post reformation centuries as we sought to impose uniformity on to those who sought to be different. Today we again have to be careful of that human tendency to coerce those who want to stand apart. And with religion growing weaker in western countries, there could be a tendency in some quarters to simply marginalise it further. In the long run in my view that would weaken our societies.
So in this meaning, pluralism is not just tolerance, but exchange and interest in the other. It is not relativism but respecting distinctiveness. But at the other extreme, pluralism is not anarchy. A pluralist society is aiming to do just what is says, build or administer a society which will be plural and thus shared. Its goal is a society by plural means, and that will mean regulation and minimum standards. The history of humanity could be said to be about navigating or setting those minimum standards and ensuring a balanced equilibrium between individuals, communities and the state or its historical precedents. That is what we achieved some 21 years ago. It is highly unlikely that the boundaries between state and communities and individuals will be definitively settled. They are always likely to be blurred, and that is often the challenge of living in a community, balancing interests, rights and obligations. Pluralism helps the very cohesion in a society that allows them to function.
But as we build that shared society we might think that our differences can be cast aside to be replace with neutral dry regulations. Some might think that we can roll back that which is distinctive and come to rely on regulations as a means of providing much-needed cohesion and solidarity in society? Is that enough to keep societies together?
We can see from the world of economics that simple regulation is not enough. Professor Philip Booth said recently, ‘regardless of how we regulate economic activity; there is no substitute for resourceful ethical people in all sectors of the economy. In place of virtue, we have seen an expansion of regulation. A society that is held together just by compliance to rules is inherently fragile, open to further abuses which will be met by a further expansion of regulation. This cannot be enough.
Regulation won’t help us with integration or the socialisation of society. It’s not enough to build societies or keep them together.
Joseph Ratzinger provides a framework beyond regulation and one which partly came from his dialogue in the early years of the millennium with Jurgen Habermas. He wrote, only in conditions of healthy secularity can a society be constructed in which diverse traditions, cultures and religions peacefully coexist.’ He said, ‘to totally separate public life from all valuing of traditions, means to embark on a closed, dead-end path.’(1) His healthy secularism is a definition of pluralism, our shared society and a clear rejection of an approach based on reductionist regulations and a neutral space of nothingness.
(1) Pope Benedict XVI, message to new Ambassador to San Marino, 13 November 2008
So what does all this mean in our cultural and political context? What role should the faith given to us by St. Patrick play in our society and how should it contribute – through individual or collective action or both? This evening I would suggest that our approach to faith and society, to the role of faith bodies in providing services, most notably education and health, is a product of a unique historical context and a philosophical tradition born out of that context which stared here with St. Patrick and has taken us on centuries of discovery of trail. Our approach to faith bodies acting in society tells us something about our state and society. But we run the risk that if we do not know our own tradition sufficiently well, and the particular context that gave birth to that tradition, then we might import a model of behaviour which we think is similar or feasible, but is not a product of our particular cultural or historical context. That could lead to a rupture in the relationship between state and society, of which the faith dimension is one of the central elements.
In the face of complexity or challenge, we cannot abandon all too easily that which has served us well in recent centuries and which we have arrived at often after painful and turbulent efforts for inclusion whether as people of faith or of no spiritual belief.
So what role for do we want to play in our changing society? It all depends ladies and gentlemen on how the state sees itself concerning broader society. If the state adopts a pluralist approach as set out above then civil society can thrive and a shared society can take hold. However, if the state takes a more absolutist model to the detriment of society, then it is unlikely that a shared society will grow and flourish. And while that would be a regret due to the loss of state-funded initiatives which support society, it would be an even greater loss to society because of what it would signify, because society would lose some of its most core and basic freedoms at the expense of an ever encroaching state which now has the technological capability to reach into all aspects of our lives. Ultimately freedom would be impinged, societal and personal. A ‘sate pays so state rules’ approach could lead to totalitarianism and upset the inherent equilibrium in a society which all democratic states should strive for.
The purpose of the state is to provide the opportunity for a good life for its citizens, not to define such a life for all citizens, or extract resources from those citizens without representations and adequate checks and balances, nor is the purpose of the state to impose uniform beliefs on a population. While the state can impose reasonable restrictions on the use of public funds, it shouldn’t use the threat of deprivation of public funds either as a matter of outright strangulation of unfashionable beliefs and groups, or to favour some parts of the plurality over others which would be unfair. That would destroy over time associations and communities that do not hold the state line in every way. That would not lead to a shared society.
The state should encourage what de Tocqueville called the mediating associations between people and the state that carve out room for a good and virtuous life. The risk, as highlighted by Alasdair MacIntyre, is that the modern secular state sees itself in competition with such communities and associations, and as its resources grow, it will seek to wipe them out. Ultimately, unless very careful, secular states, with absolutist tendencies can weaken even destroy democracy, which requires difference to function and renew itself through constant questioning and reflection.
So how do we avoid such a situation arising where the state in the western democratic tradition becomes illiberal? What role for difference? How do we not only ensure the survival of inherent freedoms that exist in society? We do so by engaging and responding coherently to arguments which question our role in society, just as St. Patrick engaged in centuries before us to challenge a prevailing order and to be a creative minority on the contemporary culture. And we do not just do so to protect vested interest if it exists, but do so for a broader service to society, to ensure it remains open, inclusive and rooted in its core values and alive to critique.
St. Patrick brought the Christian faith to these shores and and as such he opened us up to a world and a civilization beyond or immediate. Today the role of faith is the same. It is to remind us of the common humanity of all, to transcend immediate differences, to challenge our prejudices, to overcome binaries and to remind us of the transcendent and spiritual calling that each of us has through this gift of life. The role of faith in society today is to help to ensure a vibrant pluralist shared space in which not just faith-based institutions can thrive, but where all organizations can contribute.
To succeed in this we must set the argument in its widest context and show that it is not just about protecting vested interest, important as that is to society, but it goes much broader than that and touches the very notion of freedom within our society, present and future. Within that context, faith groups should always be free to make a distinctive offering to the society, complementing others and without discrimination.
Of course to do that will prove challenging along the way. Complexity usually is. It was even more so for St. Patrick. But engagement and participation is always preferable in a society to isolation and marginalization both for state, groups and individuals, provided one does not lose its independence or distinctiveness to the other.
When faced with a choice, even when it is hard, we should always believe that the opportunities to serve the greater good and society are much stronger than the challenges, and that even the challenges will help us to remain agile, to refresh our offer, and provide the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with our own rich intellectual tradition of why things are as they are. In these lands those traditions are centuries old, and with our faith they start here with St. Patrick who brought the message of Christ to these shores.
We must never be complacent
about our pluralism, and we must protect and promote it with intellectual
rigour because of the wider freedoms it supports in society, and one of those
central freedoms is the gift of faith from St. Patrick. That offer, illustrated by the spires of St.
Patrick’s in Karachi, helps to keep our societies pluralist and shared through
providing an alternative paradigm and one which is capable of giving deeper
meaning in an ever faster and changing society.
Such an offer is in all our interests, whether religious or not. Thank
you St. Patrick.