That of God in everyone

25 years of the Good Friday Agreement


A short article by Siobhán Haire - Deputy Recording Clerk of Britain Yearly Meeting

Most people over the age of about 35 with a connection to Northern Ireland will remember the Good Friday Agreement being signed. I do. I grew up just outside Belfast and at Easter 1998 when the Agreement was formalised I was 12 years old, on a canal boat somewhere in England. I wasn't blessed with keen political insight, but even I dimly grasped that what I was hearing on the radio was important.

For all that, I certainly wouldn't consider myself an expert on the Agreement, the Troubles, or contemporary Northern Ireland. I'm at least 10 years too young for the first, 20 years too young for the second and I haven't lived full-time in Northern Ireland for nearly two decades. But my teenage years were immeasurably safer and more normal than those of my parents, largely because of the Agreement and the work which led up to it.

I've watched that period and the build up to it fictionalised through the (excellent) TV show Derry Girls. I can't watch the episode which focuses on the referendum where Northern Irish people overwhelmingly voted for peace, without a bit of a cry at the optimism of the characters, buoyed up and overcoming their personal misgivings.

A post-conflict society?

Northern Ireland has changed enormously since 1998. Airport security is less of a hassle, people no longer just travel there to visit family or go on black taxi tours of Troubles flashpoints and the Irish language is much more in evidence across all communities. In many ways, it's a post-conflict society.

But that's not the whole picture. Although day-to-day life is much more normal in Northern Ireland than it used to be, it's still a place whose political system is not really working, where members of the police service have good reason to be vigilant about their personal security, and which is a constant headache for its near neighbours.

So what does Northern Ireland's journey in the last 30 or so years teach us about peace?

Building relationships

It teaches us that personal relationships and trust build the conditions for peace. The key relationships between the politicians – Northern Irish, British, American, who negotiated the agreement, are well documented. But the necessary relationships weren't just between the star players.

Harking back to Derry Girls again, one of the absolute truisms of the programme is that as a young person growing up in Northern Ireland in the 90s, you were never more than a few metres away from some sort of cross-community youth initiative to get to know the 'other side', (whichever side that might be). Some of those programmes were supported and hosted by Quakers at Quaker Cottage where for decades, Friends and others patiently built relationships, held space, and witnessed to the common humanity of people on both sides of the peace walls.

Towards a lasting peace

It teaches us that peace is fragile, and dependent on the political and social conditions in which it is rooted. While the first 18 years post-GFA generally felt like a steady march away from violence and towards a lasting peace, the seven years since the Brexit vote have rocked that sense of progress. Political intransigence has shaped the years since 2016, with Stormont suspended for almost 4 of the last 6 years, and a slow creep of violence and threat coming out from the shadows.

It teaches us that peacebuilding is a job for patient and persistent optimists. If you look at civil society peace movements in Northern Ireland – and there were many – there's a good argument that they were at their strongest in the late 1960s to the mid 1980s, not the 1990s when the Agreement was finally signed. This isn't to negate their impact, only to say that it didn't bear immediate fruit. And if you look at the timeline leading up to the Agreement, it is full of twists and turns, ceasefires, cessations, changes to political leadership, people making and breaking commitments. Peace grows slowly.

A peace process

It also teaches us that insecurity is a barrier to compromise. The Good Friday Agreement was achieved in a situation where moderate unionism was a more dominant political identity, and where those moderate unionists felt sufficiently brave to enter into a power-sharing arrangement with nationalist parties. In the last few years, unionist protestantism has come more under threat as it becomes the political identity for a smaller segment of the Northern Irish population, and that security which gave politicians the confidence to seek compromise appears to have eroded.

There's no neat ending to this article, just as there is no neat ending to the political journey in Northern Ireland. Peace is a process requiring investment – the investment of money, of personal capital and of time. Are we working to encourage investment in a peaceful future for Northern Ireland?

FWCC Update

The commencement of Southern Africa Yearly Meeting in January 2023 marked the beginning of a global process of discussion and discernment among Quakers on the theme of ubuntu, leading to and beyond the 2024 World Plenary Meeting in South Africa and online.
Ubuntu refers to the deeply held belief, morality and custom that every person is worthy of being recognised, respected and heard, and that we as human beings are all interdependent. It is found as a daily practice in many African societies, although terms and languages differ.
It implies a collective responsibility to ensure that all members of the community have the means of subsistence and learning and participation and further extends to care for the environment, since people are part of the same divinely given creation, that is an interdependent whole.
This is affirmed throughout the Bible,  including in Jesus command to “love your neighbour as yourself” and in Paul’s teaching that “a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body” (1 Corinthians 12:12).
Christian understanding of ubuntu are often associated with Desmond Tutu, who explained the term with the words, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours”. It is also reflected in the famous words of Martin Luther King Jr “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.*
Ubuntu forms a central role in Quaker thought in Southern and Central Africa, including the region’s book of Faith and Practice,
Living Adventurously which speaks of ubuntu being rooted in “an invisible circuit of connection between us all”. In the chapter about ubuntu, former FWCC clerk Duduzile Mtshazo describes her first experience of a Quaker Meeting: “The warm embrace of acceptance, just as I was, was moving and magnetic… ‘Umuntu ugumuntu ngabantu’ – a person is human through the humanity of others. I found my humanity and humanness through those Friends who saw that of God in me and affirmed that.” 
The recognition that many countries and economies are not guided by principles of ubuntu, has led many Friends to ask why this is the case, including by engaging with the historical injustices that have contributed to the present situation. Relatedly, Friends are exploring how initiatives leading to, for example, a universal basic income, and abundant sustainable energy, might help reflect ubuntu more widely.
FWCC will share resources and perspectives on ubuntu throughout 2023, to help inform discussions at Section Meetings, on
World Quaker Day (1 October), and to assist with spiritual preparation for the World Plenary Meeting.
* Neither Desmond Tutu nor Martin Luther King Jr were Quakers, but both worked closely with Friends, and were nominated by Quakers for the Nobel Peace Prize. The quote from King is from his 1963 ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ which was published and distributed by the American Friends Service Committee.  

M&O April 23 Update

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April is a busy month around the Meeting - as indeed March was! Amy and David’s Meeting for Worship at which they will marry is a particularly delightful event to which we have all looked forward. And many of us will be attending parts of or indeed the whole of Ireland Yearly Meeting in the middle of April, either in Tallaght or online.

We are also delighted as a larger Meeting to be supporting Friends in Hillsborough Meeting, which has now established itself as a Worship Group. Many South Belfast Friends have been, and will continue to be, closely involved with Hillsborough and the next stage on its journey.

Reaching out is also an important focus of the M&O team, seeing how we support all Friends and Attenders at South Belfast, helping - along with the new Clerking team of Kate Fletcher, James Nelson and Lorna Burke - to keep everyone connected and feeling at their spiritual home.

Connection too is important in reaching out to those for whom our community can be a support. So we are for example seeing how we can encourage more Friends and Attenders to set out their “My thoughts” on our website, to increase our dialogue and let others understand how we seek to live out our Quakerism. If you have something you would like to share, please do talk to us.

And in the Meeting House, where so many people visit during the week, we are planning some simple posters, to explain what we are about.

And we feel that we need as a community to have a Quaker banner, to use when we enter the public space, at larger meetings and events. These are not frequent, but we do need to stand up and speak out at times, so we need to be prepared.

The Ministry and Oversight team - Felicity, Jonathan, Ian, Kerry, Marie, Michael, Sylvia and Will

Quaker "Garden Party"

Last Sunday after Meeting for Worship, a number of us remained behind for a little Spring tidy up of the meeting house garden followed by a shared lunch. Many hands make light work as they say.


Quizz Fundraiser

A great evening of delicious food and fun in aid of Quaker Service on Friday the 31st of March. Over £240 was raised. Thanks to all who organised and hosted the quiz (which was taken more seriously at some tables than others!) and to all who brought really yummy food.