Lessons from Northern Ireland

February 20, 2019
The Rev. Dr. Gary Mason
The Rev. Dr. Gary Mason will speak at HDS on Feb. 27.

The Rev. Dr. Gary Mason and Dean David N. Hempton will speak on “The Role of Reconciliation, Memory, and Theology in Shaping the Public Stage” on Wednesday, February 27, at 2 pm, on the HDS campus. RSVP kindly requested.

When we think of the bitter sectarian conflicts of late-twentieth century Ireland, we most often imagine Union flags flying outside austere churches or a somber cadre of priests in Roman collar—which is to say Protestants and Catholics.

The image of a bookish American rabbi is not one that readily comes to mind. Yet, the Rev. Dr. Gary Mason, an Irish scholar and peacebuilder, is fond of quoting the civil rights leader and Jewish philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel when speaking of the Irish peace process. Heschel, Mason contends, reminded us that "it was words, not machines, that produced Auschwitz."

With over three decades of experience in the Northern Irish peace process, which ostensibly reached its culmination in the “Good Friday Agreement” of 1998, Mason has committed his career to the reconciliation of Republican and Loyalist communities in Northern Ireland through facilitated dialogue and urban redevelopment. Himself a Methodist clergyperson, he partnered with Catholic communities in 1992 to develop the Forth-spring Community project, a peace center in West Belfast that brought together Catholics and Protestants during a particularly turbulent few years.

Mason also played a part in a number of historic firsts. His church hosted the first official meeting of Loyalist paramilitaries with a British Secretary of State Dr. John Reid in 2002 and, in 2009, two of these groups announced their weapons decommissioning statement in the same church. This decommissioning was said to be unique, as it was the only such statement regarding illegal weapons to take place in a church. His contributions to peace and reconciliation have been recognized by none other than the Queen of England herself.

More recently, Mason spearheaded the Skainos Project, which is said to be the largest faith-based redevelopment project in Western Europe. Skainos is the Greek word for “tent,” drawing inspiration from the image of Jesus pitching his tent among the world in John 1:14. The facilities at Skainos provide “shared space for community transformation and renewal,” according to its website.

Joined by Harvard Divinity School Dean David N. Hempton, Mason is set to speak on “The Role of Reconciliation, Memory, and Theology in Shaping the Public Stage” at a special event sponsored by Religions and the Practice of Peace (RPP) and the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. The event will run from 2 to 3:30 pm (EST), on February 27, in the Braun Room of HDS’s Andover Hall.

Mason’s goal for the event is to "grapple with this whole concept of dealing with the past, the power of memory, and how that sits both theologically and psychologically." There is a critical need to deal with painful memories of conflict rather than simply forgetting, he says. "To be without memory would be to be without a life and a world.

The conversation is sure to be accented by the shared experiences of Mason and Hempton. The two met in Belfast during what Mason described as "dark, difficult days" of facilitations in the midst of the “painful sectarian civil war."

Mason’s appreciation for diverse religious traditions and figures, such as Heschel, is informed by his understanding of the Northern Irish conflict. He seeks to dispel the notion of a "war of religion" in Ireland, saying: "It wasn’t a religious war in the sense that we were fighting over papal infallibility or salvation by faith." Instead, he pointed to a "toxic theology" that fed "what was primarily a civil war about identity and nationality." A healthy theology for Mason is not toxic, but it breathes "the oxygen of hope into protracted situations."

Attendees to the event can also expect Mason to address the “linguistic violence” underlying recent Brexit debates. Mason will talk about a complex matrix of issues driving the Brexit vote, especially fears and concerns about immigration.

"With Brexit roiling British and Irish politics, especially around the vexed issue of the Irish border, we are fortunate to have Dr. Mason with us to help us understand better what is happening both 'on the ground' in Northern Ireland and in the wider political scene, which the Economist has called 'The mother of all messes,' " says Hempton.

Commenting on the 2017 Brexit referendum, Mason is remorseful of the "verbal hand grenades" being flung over the Irish border since the vote.

"We haven’t had a government in Northern Ireland in over two years, so there's a number of fault lines currently running through Northern Irish society and, to a lesser degree Southern Irish society."

Many have been concerned about a lack of civil dialogue in Ireland following the vote—a conversation that closely mirrors debates about rhetoric in the United States. As such, Mason has been facilitating dialogue between the Irish government in Dublin and those who are loyalists or unionists in the North, “primarily to ensure that people are hearing each other correctly." He wants to avoid the replication of events of the late 1960s and early '70s where "many young men, because of bad language in the public sphere, ended up getting involved in political violence."

The Brexit vote highlights the tensions that have continued on the island 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement. American Senator George Mitchell predicted such a situation, saying, "If you think getting this agreement was difficult, implementing it will be even more difficult."

And Mason heartily agrees: "There's almost a dearth of ideas about how to deal with these difficult conflicts."

Yet, Mason believes that there must be an intervention from religious leaders in shaping the public conversation. Religious leaders must follow Heschel's lead, Mason believes, to rehumanize the other and breathe the "oxygen of hope" back into hopeless situations. A failure to do so may just lead to further catastrophe.

by Nicholas J. Scrimenti