Getting society unstuck
“Hopes of the past, hopes for the future” discussion at the 25th John Hewitt International Summer School, Armagh, Northern Ireland
By Dalia FERRAN for Northern Ireland Foundation
27 July 2012
In its 25th anniversary, the John Hewitt Society International Summer School, an international festival of literature and the arts, hosted a panel discussion, “Hopes of the past, hopes for the future”, sponsored by Stratagem and held at the Market Place in Armagh.
The event, chaired by Malachi O’Doherty, journalist, cultural commentator and author who specialises in political commentary and radio reportage, saw community leaders come together to discuss what happened to the hopes of 25 years ago, and on hopes for the future.
The discussion started with Joanne Stuart, OBE, who has been NI Chairman of the Institute of Directors and who currently serves as Chairman of Arts and Business NI, speaking about economy, poverty and social development, and recognizing the sense of responsibility she felt after being out of Northern Ireland for 15 years.
Joanne said that growing the private sector and supporting business were outlined as essential areas to an economic transformation of society, “We need to challenge all our ways of thinking and doing things.”
Her hopes for the future were focused first on increasing partnerships and getting more collaboration between art, culture and business, as well as trying to provide opportunities for young people.
Bernadette McAliskey, a committed socialist and a community and human rights activist who has been deeply involved with migrant workers in the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme, stressed that it is a full-time occupation to survive poverty.
She described herself as remaining hopeful, although she aired her concerns regarding a lack of real intent to eradicate poverty.
Reverend Lesley Carroll, Minister of the congregation of the Fortwilliam and Macrory Presbyterian Church in North Belfast, and Convener of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s Church and Society Committee, highlighted how relationships based on complete trust have given a bit more space to take risks for the way forward: “I’m often cynical but always hopeful. If it wasn’t for hope, I wouldn’t be here today and I wouldn’t have been in North Belfast for 25 years”, she said.
Rev. Carroll also referred to her congregation and its desire to be linked back to the wider community, from which was seriously “divorced” during the years of the Troubles.
Malachi O’Doherty led the discussion on how the situation in Northern Ireland is now, and whether our society will progress towards peace unconsciously or whether a conscious effort is required.
According to Joanne Stuart, “We all have a role to play and no one way is the right way. She remarked that going forward will only be achieved if proper decisions are made around what the society needs, rather than making sure things are shared out.
Rev. Carroll believed that we have come a long way but that we still have a long way to go. For her, the manner that the past has not been dealt with intrudes upon what has been achieved in the peace. She suggested that until the past is dealt with, society will be stuck.
Similarly, Bernadette McAliskey talked about the necessity of dealing with the past, as well as solving the structures of the peace. She noted that there is a narrative in both communities in Northern Ireland that “war works”, and that carries a risk that we will get the Troubles back “sooner than we think”.