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. 

Life & Death
4 min read

Did God save Donald Trump?

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, Graham Tomlin asks whether or not we can see the hand God at work.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Red hat with the words Make America Great Again

Given the polarised nature of American politics and the venomous nature of the debates, the assassination attempt on Donald Trump was not entirely a surprise, even if a massive shock to the system. It was both tragic for those who were killed and yet a relief for everyone that Trump survived, not least for the unimaginable consequences across the country if he had not.

It doesn’t take a very deep dive into the maelstrom that is Twitter/X these days, to discover a common theme among Trump supporters - that God shielded him from a certain death. “God protected President Trump,” Senator Marco Rubio posted. “God saved the life of Donald Trump” say a million others, confident that the seemingly miraculous slight head tilt at the moment of the shot that ensured the bullet hit his ear, not going through the back of his temple, was a moment of divine intervention.

Yet look elsewhere on X and you can find vast numbers of people equally certain that this is complete nonsense. God did not save Donald Trump, either because there is no God to save anyone, or because if there is a God, either he doesn’t intervene at all, or even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t want to save the likes of Donald Trump.

If God saved Trump, they say, why did he not save the life of Corey Comperatore, the volunteer fireman who was killed by bullets fired from the gun that was used in the attack?  Trump supporters respond with the claim that Trump has a special calling, justifying divine intervention, to ‘restore the Judaeo-Christian heritage to America’ as one tweet put it.

So, which is it?

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history.

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history. After all, the central Christian claim is that he did this in remarkable acts of deliverance such as the Exodus, at key moments in the history of Israel and most importantly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, they claim, he does it in less prominent ways, as testimonies to prayers answered and apparently miraculous occurrences suggest.

Yet divine interventions like this are by definition rare. In one of Douglas Coupland’s novels, one of the characters ponders a Christian group that expects constant miracles: “They’re always asking for miracles and finding them everywhere. In as much as I am a spiritual man, I do believe in God - I think that he created an order for the world; I believe that, in constantly bombarding him with requests for miracles, we are also asking that he unravel the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would be a cartoon, not a world.” He has a point.

Yet a world without any interventions at all would be a world which God had seemed to abandon to its fate. The idea that God set up his world to run like clockwork with no further intervention is Deism, not Christianity, a theology popular in the C17th and C18th, still found today, but leaves God watching us from a safe and uninvolved distance. It would lead to the conclusion that God did not really care that much about the world, leaving it to its own devices, especially when evil runs riot and nothing seems to prevent it. Such interventions are best seen as signs, special indications that do not ‘unravel the fabric of the world’, yet are tangible reminders that even though it is broken, God has not given up on this world, and will one day redeem it.

Yet if God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

If God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

At several points in the Old Testament, writers wonder how you can tell the true prophet from the false. One of them answers like this: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.”

To be honest, this doesn’t appear to help much. You can tell if a person has got it right if their prediction comes true, but at the time, you have no idea whether it will come true or not, so it still leaves you in the dark as to who to believe.

Yet it does suggest an important insight. You can only tell God’s intervention retrospectively. You can only say with a degree of confidence that God has ‘intervened’ when looking back on events and seeing how they turn out.

If Donald Trump is elected, and somehow brings about harmony and flourishing for as many people in the USA as possible, stabilises the economy, enabling all people to live a decent life, not just the rich and powerful, restores a sense of civility and generosity to public life, resists the forces of harm and evil in the nation and in the world, and brings freedom for Christians and others to practice and promote their faith, then maybe we might look back in future years and say that God did step in on July 14th 2024 to frustrate the purposes of evil in the world.

Yet if none of that happens, and what results from his survival is instead a deeper fracturing of social cohesion, a coarsening of public debate, a siege mentality that divides the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, an increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the elites and ordinary people, then we might in future say it was mere chance, one of those random things that happen in this created yet fallen world with its mysterious blend of order and chaos.

Which will it be? Time will tell. Until then, we’d better be cautious about claims of divine intervention. Not because God never does it, but because we’re not very good at telling when it happens.