6 min read

Northern Ireland’s imminent danger is distraction

Distraction damages much more than your concentration. Its consequences could cost Northern Ireland its future.
Smartly dressed politicians sit or mill around a round table.
Rishi Sunak with the leaders of the Northern Ireland Government.
Prime Minister's Office.

Should you be reading this article right now? Are you meant to be working? Perhaps you’re working from home with the glorious ‘freedom’ that brings? Forgive me for judging, but it’s just that I know myself all too well. Dear reader, I must confess to you that in the course of writing this article I have already ‘cut away’ to cricket scores or my fascinating chess match with covidchessfun34 more than a few times. We are an increasingly distractable people. But you’re here now, so whether you landed here through word of mouth or social media, welcome. Much as you would (I am sure) love me to deconstruct yours and my individual psychology and boundaries, my hopefully more important point here is that distraction also operates at a political level.    

It’s been a frustrating few years for the people of Northern Ireland. Which when placed on top of the devastating history of the last 50 years seems a tad cruel. Just when the Good Friday Agreement seemed to have pulled off a miraculous balancing act on the high wire of a divided island with contested history, Brexit came along to throw off NI’s centre of gravity. It was in fact thrown off to such an extent that NI was left just trying to cling on, balance and survive, rendering no forward progress possible. Sadly, the circus metaphor seems appropriate in more ways than one.  

Given that context, you can appreciate how the people of Northern Ireland felt this week when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak flew into Belfast and attempted to educate them. He urged the newly formed Northern Ireland executive to focus on ‘things that matter’ rather than constitutional change. With hospital waiting lists that rival Sierra Leone and some roads that rival, well, Sierra Leone, I think that folks in Northern Ireland get that ‘things that matter’ are the things that matter. Of course, what the Prime Minister is talking about is Northern Ireland’s obsession with the elephant in the room - the border, or the desired removal of it. We don’t just talk about the elephant in the room. We study her in minute detail. We build brand new scientific devices just to study her. So, to be fair to the Prime Minister, ‘Don’t get distracted by the border’ is at a surface level an important thing to hear. Especially as Northern Ireland’s new First Minister Michelle O’Neill has not been shy about putting a United Ireland firmly on the agenda in her first days in office. 

Condescension from someone that knows more than you is challenging, but condescension from someone who knows less than you do really grates. 

But what has grated the good people of Northern Ireland is that this sermon to not be distracted by constitutional change was delivered by one of the chief exponents of Brexit – the biggest constitutional upheaval for Northern Ireland in a generation. The time spent and the regulatory gymnastics involved in trying to do a job of Brexit damage limitation for Northern Ireland has sucked the political energy and life out of these last seven years in Belfast and beyond.  

None of us enjoy condescension. It is that annoying thing that happens when people know more about a subject than we do and lord it over us. But what the people of Northern Ireland have had to endure in this last decade is being lectured by the Jacob Rees-Moggs of this world about the wonders of Brexit, when it became patently clear to most Northern Irish folks that not only had the particular challenges of NI not been fully considered but that even senior Brexit-supporting politicians didn’t actually understand the logistics how NI currently operated within the EU. Condescension from someone that knows more than you is challenging, but condescension from someone who knows less than you do really grates. And that’s only the nuts and bolts we’re talking about. Probably more detrimental was the ignorant blind spot around identity and psychology that was exposed. A palpable lack of knowledge was exposed regarding how the Good Friday Agreement combined with EU membership had created a remarkable ‘safe space’ in Northern Ireland where people who wanted to feel Irish could feel Irish and people who wanted to feel British could feel British. Condescension feels even worse when it seems that people don’t understand your circumstances or care about you.  

The force(s) of darkness are not idiots. They don’t waste time for most of us tempting us with the big stuff. In short, they try to distract us.

So, I put it to you that the consequences of distraction can be large. Those of us with Irish DNA need to hear the challenge that our obsession with the border has led to us not loving our neighbour as ourselves and stolen decades of healthy existence from our island. But might it be wise to at least consider that the distraction of Brexit has stolen and may continue to steal decades of focus on climate change, strengthening family life, healthcare, immigration, economic justice, international peacebuilding, and maintaining local service provision from local councils. In short, ‘things that matter’. 

The temptation is to see distractions as whimsical, temporary things. We think, “ah that quick scroll through Facebook or Instagram may make me less efficient, but it won’t kill me”. But that is exactly how temptation works. If you believe in an invisible battle between good and evil (and I do), then there are some dynamics that are worth considering. If there is a person or an impersonal force tempting me, then it is unlikely to tempt me to do things that are socially and culturally inappropriate in my world. I am not likely to be tempted to murder someone this morning. That would be an inefficient tempting strategy. But it would appear from the state of the world that whoever is in charge of tempting is actually quite good at it. 

That’s why I believe we are more usually tempted not to swing dramatically one way or the other but by a small shift of the needle. Just a little bit more than the day before. Not tempted to kill someone but tempted to score that point in a social media discussion. Not tempted to rob a bank, but tempted to ‘creatively’ adjust small increments in our tax reporting. Not tempted to commit adultery, but tempted to linger too long in a conversation or on a website.  

The force(s) of darkness are not idiots. They don’t waste time for most of us tempting us with the big stuff. In short, they try to distract us. Just a little wander off the main path. Won’t hurt anyone. Won’t take up much time. Except that habits form and unhealthy practices and opinions start to solidify, and ever-so-subtly the wheels may start to come off. Multiply that by a few million people and a whole country can end up hacking through gorse and bushes rather than driving on the track.   

Sure, a marriage can be patched up after innocent distraction becomes a porn addiction, but there will be wounds and scars. We need to acknowledge and repent to allow healing. The people of Northern Ireland know all too well that real reconciliation needs the hard yards of repentance and forgiveness. 

My prayer for the new Northern Ireland executive is that they can avoid further distractions and keep the main thing the main thing. At present only seven per cent of young people in Northern Ireland attend an integrated school. That means that the vast majority of people are growing up not getting to know kids from the other side of the religious divide. In that vacuum the fear, ignorance and prejudice can fester. Our own secret apartheid. That would be one place to start. 

Speaking of which. Get back to work. 

War and peace
3 min read

Letter from Lviv

Loss, resilience, and a hope one day to count blessings not missile intercepts.

Iryna Dobrohorska is Christian Aid’s Country Response Director for Ukraine.

A woman stands at the back of an armoured military vehicle, the door of which is open.
Iryna stands by a displayed military vehicle.

Ukraine is only two years older than I am. My personal history is intertwined with Ukraine’s history. Instead of the carefree fun I should be having as a young Ukrainian woman, on Saturday I was reflecting that my last two years have been dominated by war since Russia began its full-scale invasion. Over those 730 days, I have witnessed the best and worst of humanity.  

I was evacuated from Kyiv to the sounds of explosions nearby, fearing I would be raped or murdered by Russian soldiers if they entered the capital. I’ve wept over losing university friends in combat. I’ve despaired at how Ukrainian writers are being deliberately targeted by the Kremlin.  

But I also observed the speed that we Ukrainians built trust and social connections with unknown people. I was proud of the warmth of my hometown, Lviv, which welcomed people from the east of the country - it crushed the myths that Russia was trying to ooze into our national life that we were a divided country that didn’t have the right to exist except as part of Russia. 

Not just in Lviv but all over Ukraine. This month in Odesa I felt the same warmth extended to elderly displaced people when I hosted a visit to our local humanitarian partner Heritage Ukraine by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. He saw for himself how the team, funded by the Scottish faith charity Blythswood, had opened their doors and their hearts to these traumatised strangers facing an uncertain future. 

One of those displaced people, Nadia, told me: “We want to go home, but our home is being shelled. At least here we stay with dignity.”  

The violence inflicted by Russia is not becoming any easier in the prolonged war we now face.

t’s a scene of resilience I’ve grown accustomed to as I’ve crisscrossed the country to play my small part in the astonishing humanitarian effort powered by the UK public’s incredibly generous donations.  

The Iryna I saw in the mirror in 2021 wouldn’t recognise the young woman I see looking back at me today.  

In Kherson, I was recording the stories of illegal detention of civilians to the sound of artillery fire. In Mykolaiv, my window view was an apartment block with the roof blown off and clay-coloured water was the only drinking option.  

I never thought that I would learn the types of weaponry used in modern warfare. Now I know the difference between the motorbike sound of a drone from the missile whistle above my head followed by the clank when it detonates nearby.  

Security awareness is an everyday reality in Ukraine. We often debate during an alert whether choosing to sleep in our own beds instead of going to a shelter may turn out to be our last night. A six-months pregnant teacher friend of mine in Kyiv was killed in her sleep from a drone strike.  

The violence inflicted by Russia is not becoming any easier in the prolonged war we now face. Yet I also sense the paradox that we’ve accepted the war becoming everyday normality and so has the rest of the world. 

Global attention today is not focused only on Ukraine. A host of other crises are taking precedence in the need for a humanitarian response. My biggest fear is that the long-term nature of our crisis reduces global actors to sympathizing observers.  

What I do know is that my generation of young Ukrainians who have lost so much will not allow that to happen. More than ever, I feel the need for a just and resolute peace for Ukraine. With the help of our international friends, the day will come when those who have suffered can go back to rebuild their homes and communities.  

As I move on to engage further in Ukraine’s recovery efforts, I feel privileged to have worked for Christian Aid as part of the humanitarian response. I’m most proud of our role in being a catalyst for local people to help themselves by setting their own community priorities in the kind of support they need, giving them a sense of dignity and self-worth.  

It’s that kind of world that I dream about - where one day I will count my country’s blessings instead of how many drones and missiles were intercepted the night before.