On Saturday 10th September, the Most Revd Dr Richard Clarke, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, spoke to the annual conference of the British-Irish Association (BIA) meeting in Pembroke College, Oxford (9-11 September 2016) this year. The BIA annual conference brings together a wide range of people – senior politicians and government officials, businessmen and women, academics, faith leaders, writers, former paramilitaries and community workers – to discuss matters of mutual concern (in camera). Archbishop Clarke’s focus was on responding to the social, political and economic challenges facing Northern Irish society today, in order to set the scene for further discussion at the meeting.
• Truth in public discourse
Archbishop Clarke stressed the need for a better quality of public discourse across society and the need to ‘reject any notion that truth can be treated as disposable’ – a theme which he explored recently in the Irish Times when he argued that a general contempt for logos – logic, truth and reality – leads to the loss of empathy as a basic and vital human quality. The Archbishop argued that much public discourse today was based on the appeal to identity and to emotion, than on proper dispassionate discussion on public issues which is a basic essential for a functioning democracy. He suggested that the foundations of democracy are under threat today in western Europe in a way that has previously been unthinkable since the end of the Second World War.
• Social inequalities and public services
Dr Clarke called for politicians and leaders to consider how social inequalities and improvements to public services can be seriously addressed. He said that it is clear that the whole of the UK (and the Republic of Ireland) ‘is in current account deficit’ and that we must face up to the challenges of how to both increase the public finances in order to deliver the public services we need – from health to education to housing to policing – and to address the reality of poverty in an era of dependence by some on food banks. While acknowledging the complexity of the challenges, Archbishop Clarke proposed that it is time for ‘serious, reasoned and reasonable discussions’ on taxation – something that cannot be avoided because it is too difficult to resolve.
• ‘Legacy’ issues Flowing from his views on social and economic inequality
Archbishop Clarke also touched on his belief that ‘legacy’ issues in Northern Ireland still need to be prioritised – not least because so much of the public discourse in Northern Ireland continually returns to these issues. With regard to victims and survivors of ‘the Troubles’, Dr Clarke stressed that the term ‘legacy’ in itself ‘can sound too abstract when in fact the issues relate to real not abstract situations’, with people still needing a great deal of public support (and not always financial). He said that a ‘one size fits all’ approach will not work because individual perspectives and circumstances must be taken into account.
• Avoiding a ‘hard border’
Finally, in the context of his broader themes of the challenges around public finances, social inequalities and the building up of the common good in the future of Northern Ireland, Archbishop Clarke said that he, like many others, is of the view that a post-Brexit ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland needs to be avoided. Dr Clarke stated that he feels it is essential to the peace, stability, good relations and quality of life for the people on the island of Ireland as whole that a ‘soft border’ is maintained.