This last Friday representatives from the Progressive Unionist Party, including candidate for Castlerea East DEA, Izzy Giles, joined a few of us from my church to discuss their party’s vision for achieving a more prosperous and peaceful future here in Northern Ireland.
The PUP joined us as part of our Faith and Democracy dinner series at church where we meet with local politicians and hear what values guide them in their work and their ideas on how to build a Shared Future.
We are a church of mixed opinions on many issues and we aren’t afraid to disagree. What unites us is our shared belief in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some of us come from strong Irish republican backgrounds, some from strong loyalist backgrounds, and some, like myself, originally come from different countries. There are political conservatives amongst us as well as ardent leftists. But we all desire to build a society where democracy is upheld and everyone is valued.
As an American I carry with me a certain naïveté about the Troubles that no amount of reading or documentary-film-watching can dispel. I don’t know what it was like for those in the room on Friday who come from Republican backgrounds, or even middle-class Unionist backgrounds, to hear from the PUP. But for me, I found the experience of hearing from loyalists valuable in my own development of understanding conflict transformation in Northern Ireland. As one party member put it, “The only time the media want to speak to the PUP is when they are commenting on sectarian issues.” It was good to be in a room where we could discuss many different topics.
The conversations we hold at these dinners aren’t strictly private, but I do feel uncomfortable giving a point by point summary. But generally we discussed British pluralism, the Long Kesh origins of the party, educational underachievement in Protestant working-class areas, integrated education, the flag protests, challenging racism, and how the party stands for democracy and sharing power.
To close the evening, we asked the party representatives if there were specific issues they would like us as a church to pray for. They are: 1) for those most disadvantaged to be lifted out of poverty, 2) for social justice and equality across sectarian and class divides, 3) to make Northern Ireland work. These are prayer points I can certainly get behind and will incorporate into my own prayer routine.
It is not my role as one of the hosts of this dinner series to make judgements about our guests. For what it’s worth, I have a lot of respect for those PUP members that came to talk with us. It isn’t easy stepping into a situation where you have to explain your politics to people who, on many issues, aren’t in agreement with you—especially on a Friday night! But if these dinners accomplish anything, it’s the notion that we can push below the surface of disagreement until we find common ground and a common purpose in sharing the responsibility for the wellbeing of our city.