Archbishop John McDowell: Protocol debate is no place for public figures to mock those they disagree with

I cannot think of a more difficult or more polarized moment in Northern Ireland or between the UK and Ireland over the past 20 years. Friction and drama have many causes, but events have come together to create a moment of real danger.

The issue that now stands as a symbol of the wider community and international tension is protocol. The origins of the protocol are relatively simple, but it has become fantastically complex in its development and the number of ailments that are now attributed to it or threatened as a result.

Very few people will have the time or expertise to sort out the details of the protocol.

But its goals are linked to the 1998 Agreement. So it’s very unfortunate that this has provoked a degree of partisanship that now seems to be preventing consensus from being reached.

But the debate around Brexit and the protocol does not stray far from issues of peace, political stability, or a constitutional future.

My own intuition tells me that at this time it would be wiser to think for a moment about how, as a society that should live in this small space, we could approach the current challenges together, rather than choosing between what has become quite tough . many narratives and corrections.

As a disciple of Jesus Christ who is also a Church leader, the main questions I need to ask myself at this time are: “How will what I do or say express my discipleship of Jesus Christ?” And: “How will this contribute to the common good?”

Church leaders are not party politicians, and we are not accredited representatives of any political community.

My guess is that most people in the Church of Ireland in Northern Ireland are Unionists of one sort or another, and most people in the Church of Ireland in the Republic of Ireland are nationalists in general.

It is likely that both jurisdictions also have a significant minority (especially) of those under 40 who classify themselves as “neither” or “other”. Fortunately, there are a large number of elected representatives of political parties or political communities who are able and willing to speak on behalf of all these groups.

So, as the leader of the Church, I am not speaking for, with or in front of the Church, or in front of the wider society in that way.

I, as a church leader, have no right to flaunt the political affiliation of people in the Church of Ireland in such terms.

In many ways, their political or constitutional affiliation does not concern me. This reconciliation of confessional and political affiliation has been a feature of our history, and it has only led many in society to question what unconditional loyalty to the Church really is. In doing so, it interfered with the usefulness of the Church in the world, and sometimes also devalued the gospel and its implications.

The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is neither unionist nor nationalist nor “neither one nor the other”.

He is the Supreme Lord of all nations, the God of justice and bounty, who wishes well for all. For those of us whose churches are island-wide, this is especially important to remember.

Brexit, the issue that created the need for the protocol, has undoubtedly caused controversy across the UK. However, there is only one place where these divisions are seen as a threat of violent destruction and social disintegration.

This is especially true because shadow groups that once enjoyed the trust of voters but have now reverted to their core competencies of drug dealing, extortion and oppression of their own communities are trying to exert political pressure through their proxies.

Perhaps it is important that opinion from the shadows be open; probably no. In any case, there will always be something of the night in it.

On the contrary, in a functioning democratic society, opinions expressed by trade organizations, academics, businessmen, and even church leaders are sure to be heard—by those whose goal is simply to inform based on knowledge or evidence, not to campaign. It is vital that their freedom of speech be respected and protected.

Of course, nothing can stop the poisoned imagination behind anonymous Twitter accounts, but there should be no room for ridicule, other than public figures, at those whose evidence does not agree with a particular narrative. This only leads to nervous discussion and narrowed public space.

Northern Ireland has always had an electoral democracy, but it has not always had a democratic culture.

Democracy in its fullest sense is not like fatherhood automatically passed on to the next generation.

The basics are easy to forget, not least about what other generations called “politeness”; honesty and transparency in public debate. It is an insidious form of barbarism to say that “politics is an old rough game” and therefore “everything is permissible.”

The web of relationships and learned decorum that makes good societies work is much easier to untangle than to weave.

Brexit and the protocol will continue to affect different parts of these islands in different ways and cause different fears in different circles.

We need to be very careful what we say and what we listen in these matters.

First of all, we need to focus on what is our common interest here and now in order to avoid what will divide us even more painfully in the future.

John McDowell is Archbishop of the Church of Ireland of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.