What does it mean to be a moral beacon?

Professor John Brewer

Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice



 I have had a busy day at two conferences. In the morning I attended the Sinn Fein conference in the Europa Hotel on Belfast as a City of Equals; in the afternoon a workshop at the Lyric Theatre by the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice on victims and memory. The juxtaposition of these two events is worthy of comment.


Sinn Fein’s conference was designed to reach out to the Protestant Unionist community and to begin discussion about Northern Ireland’s shared future. It says something about the difficulty of achieving a shared society however, that Unionist politicians boycotted the event and a small group of Loyalists protested outside. But it was significant for the prospects of realising this goal that the audience was full of civil society groups, some from the PUL community, representing churches, victims groups, conflict resolution experts and the like.


This was important because politicians are not hope-makers. We have relied too long on our politicians here to paint a vision of a post-conflict society; they didn’t do it after the Good Friday Agreement and most are not doing it now. Politicians are bad hope-makers. For one thing they tend to be focused on the here-and-now. For another, the spaces in which politicians speak tend to limit their capacity to outline a vision for the future. The adversarial nature of parliamentary assemblies reduces politics to point scoring.


The real place to discuss and debate the future, the space where hope can be mentioned as a guiding principle, is the civil sphere – amongst precisely the sort of people who attended Sinn Fein’s conference.


But it must be, as Tom Hartley said to me, ordinary communities speaking to one another not the gatekeepers who take it upon themselves to speak on people’s behalf without checking first what they really want them to say.


What I liked about Sinn Fein’s conference was also the recognition that the future can only be inherited by dealing with the past. We should not strive forward into the future and leave people behind in a two or three speed peace process as my colleague in the Institute Pete Shirlow put it.


But should we go into the future at the pace of the slowest person?


The Director of the Institute, Hastings Donnan said something so significant at the Lyric Theatre workshop that it bears repeating. The past is a collection of narratives about human tragedy, in which some people suffered so the rest of us can experience the gains of peace. These human tragedies should not be turned into a sectarian distortion of the past, for all sides suffered. Their tears are the same, as Pete Shirlow put it in the morning conference.


I want to link the two conferences though. It is very easy to say that we need to deal with the past, much harder to know what this means and to put it into practice. It is often a code for the way we deal with victims/survivors/the injured. There are some people who use this group as a means to try to overturn the gains made in the peace process – of turning the clock back.


Turning the clock back is no way to deal with the past. Victims/survivors/the injured will not regain their limbs, or have their loved ones return. One way of dealing with the past is to ask victims what they want – and to let their voices speak not those politicians who put themselves forward as their spokespeople. And I did so of the victims at the afternoon conference.


One victim, called Alex, answered in a way that should have humbled the politicians who refused to attend the morning event and those protesting outside – he wanted the three “r’s”: respect, recognition and reparations. But he also said that he knew that the future would ask him to make compromises, and that he was prepared to make them for the sake of his grandchildren.

We need the civil sphere to begin the debate that the politicians are scared of; and in the civil sphere we need moral beacons like Alex to be heard not their so-called gatekeepers.


To be a moral beacon is to rise above the darkness of past pain and to point a light for the rest of us to follow into a brighter future. The future is a frightening place, sometimes more so than the past. Moral beacons like Alex shine a light to help everyone cope with their fears, politicians included.


So do we take our lead from the victims, the very moral beacons we claim to be supporting or do we let their spokespeople set the agenda?


As for me and mine – we are on the side of the moral beacons. Where do you stand?

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10 Responses to What does it mean to be a moral beacon?

  1. Dr Francis Teeney says:

    I cannot help thinking that some politicians are using many of the victims issues for their own ends. I totally support the plight of the victims – I am just not convinced that some our politicians do. I wonder why they did not support the victims so vocally ten or fifteen years ago. Many of the victims that I know have told me that it is only recently they have enjoyed the ear of the politicians – years ago very few of them would listen.

  2. Adam Murray says:

    I find it difficult to feel much positivity for our politicians who speak so nicely about peace and co-operation but then, like with yesterdays SF conference, are unable to even organise the dialogue between them. That not a single unionist politician attended was a disgrace.

    And then issues like flags and symbols come around every so often, just enough to stoke tensions and keep people in their green and orange corners of the ring.

    Have we forgotten the fake Alliance leaflets? The naming of a playpark after an IRA combatant? How can political parties take these actions and claim to be peacemakers? I doubt their sincerity, they just want re-elected.

    I’m not just a naysayer though, I have a lot of hope for our shared future. There are so many genuine people working for peace and it’s a true inspiration. Personally I’m joining NI21 as it seems genuine in it’s wishes to advance past this current state of affairs.

  3. dgmagee says:

    On reading the article I was left with the sense that a great injustice is done to those victims/survivors/the injured of the past when the rest of us fail to allow their suffering to speak to our consciences and inform our future actions. Their suffering is a permanent reminder to us that peace is not inevitable. We should not be complacent. Their suffering is a deafening warning for future generations not to repeat the mistakes of the past and is one that, like the article points out, must be heard. When we use their courage and dignity as our inspiration for taking bold risks for peace, we do those who have suffered no greater honour. There is much work to be done.

  4. Roddy Cowie says:

    To be a moral beacon is very like being a saint. Terms like ‘saint’ are taboo in contemporary discourse, but that is our loss. William James, who had a huge influence on modern psychology, also put a great deal of effort into painting what he called a composite portrait of a saint, and concluded: ‘let us be saints, then, if we can’.
    It is a powerful and – for a modern academic – a radical idea that the resolution of deep-rooted conflicts rests neither on institutions, nor on the gradual effect of many individuals meeting across lines, but on a few individuals proving by the quality of their lives that seemingly irreconcilable conflicts can in reality be resolved. That would appear to be what Nelson Mandela did.
    If that is what John Brewer is driving towards, then all credit to him. Nobody can guarantee that it is true, but it is certainly an idea worth having on the table.

  5. John Brewer says:

    Politics is all too readily rendered into institutions not personalities. Some people by the sheer force of their convictions, by the power of their moral vision, and by the weight of their persuasion, can be game-changers (to use an awful modern phrase). We used to call this charisma. But ordinary people can be game-changers too. Look at Rose Park. Martin Luther King may well have had the broader vision, but Rose Park had the moral courage in her small sphere to make King’s work possible. That’s what ordinary victims can do – make a difference in their small sphere so that politicians with vision can take it forward.

  6. Jennifer McNern says:

    It is vital for all parties to talk to victims and for all victims to listen to all parties. We are a diverse group with many hurts but we do share many things in common. Pain and grievance being two of the of the most obvious ones. New laws will not replace limbs but an understanding might just allievate the injustice of not being heard. An open debate might just create new understandings.
    I am not on the side of victims for political expediency but rather because I am one; I have a voice and along with many others we will be heard. We do not want to become ‘The Forgotten Victims’ again. We can share our experieces with others to show we have something to offer and we would like all parties to sit up and listen and not just some of them.

    • Francis Teeney says:

      Jennifer this is a very powerful comment. In many respects the post conflict can be more painful than the conflict itself. I agree that all parties need to talk to the victims and a vital component in helping the victims is that all parties talk to one another instead of scoring points off one another. Your point on political expediency is very apt – I cannot help thinking that on some occasions victims are being used as a political football with which to beat someone else. I hope you will be heard – maybe then not only parties but people will sit up and listen and give you the help you deserve, the recognition you seek and finally the apology that you had to fight for so long for something that should have been yours long ago.

  7. Clark Shiels says:

    Is there a difference in victims, can one victim be placed on one side or the other. Suppose your coming home from work and someone sets off a roadside bomb you are killed but so is the person who set off the bomb. Your family are told it was because you were a brickie working at a police station. The bombers family are told the British army were in the area and prevented the volunteer from moving away from the bomb.
    The brickie was totally innocent of any crime, is the bomber a victim because the British army stopped his movement away from the bomb.

  8. John Brewer says:

    People are victims for widely different reasons Clark, and being a victim is not necessarily related to any act of commission (what they did) or omission (what they didn’t do). I subscribe to the view that all people living amidst violent conflict are victims in one way or another. But ascertaining who is or is not a victim of certain acts of commission or omission is perhaps not the most important question once the violence is more or less over. In a post-conflict society, the question changes: what am I prepared to do so others don’t have to be victims in the future?

  9. Pingback: Can the Churches Provide a Vision? Prof John Brewer on Religion, Conflict & Peace « Slugger O'Toole

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