0 NE OF THE pleasures of returning to university life I came to Oxford last term to do some
research on saints' lives is the possibility of engaging in politics. If you work for your living and, moreover, live in London, your sheer disinclination to get out of an evening to listen to politi cians talk can hardly be overstated. Once in a university, however, they come to you, which changes matters.
One such visitor to the university was John Bruton, the former Irish taoiseach.
He was there at the invitation of the Oxford Labour Club and Irish Society to talk about the peace process in Northern Ireland. He did so; fluently, authoritatively, engagingly.
It happens that my views do not quite coincide with those of Mr Bruton on this subject. He believes that there is no particular reason why the geographical unit of the island of Ireland should coincide with the political unit in which people decide their allegiances and use their democratic voice; in short, he has not great enthusiasm for the ideal of a united Ireland in the sense in which the Irish constitution understands it. Instead, he thinks of Irish unity in a larger sense of a unity of community.
But it is not the flexibility of Mr Bruton's understand ing of sovereignty that I want to write about, interesting though it is. It is his understanding of sin.
It is one of he wholly refreshing aspects of Irish politics that a politician can actually use such a word in public discourse. An English politician wouldn't be able to. But Mr Bruton did.
He was talking about the segregation of the commu nities in northern Ireland, whereby Catholics and Protestants live geographi cally separate from each other, in different schools, supporting different football teams, wilfully living apart from the other, each developing prejudice about the other community because of their apartness.
"These are sinful, " he said, "these attitudes. Poli tics are not going to solve the problem. Bigotry and political oversimplification what about my grievance the refusal to listen to what the other has to say ... this attitude is evil. There is personal badness involved. "There is such a thing as sira here; some of the attitudes of politicians in Northern Ireland are sinful and bad. We have to talk about moral regeneration as well as political regeneration."
I can't tell you how refreshing such language is. It goes without saying that the situation in Northern Ireland cannot be addressed at the level of the individual, without taking political structures into account; Mr Bruton would be the last person to do so.
But it is sometimes necessary to examine political attitudes in terms of the goodwill, the charity, the love of neighbour, that they manifest.
And it is sometimes necessary to call people to account for their politics in terms of its goodness and badness. Churchmen do so, all the time.
But such language, such calling to account, cannot be limited to people in pulpits: it has to be dome by the players themselves. Sin is a social and individual matter. And, while one cannot use the language of sin lightly about people with whose views one simply does not agree, there are ways of thinking about one's neighbour and talking about him in the public forum which are bad and wrong, no matter how much one tries to put them in the context of circumstance, culture and history.
It is often suggested that the problem of Northern Ireland is one of religion: English people are particularly dismissive of people falling out over a matter which has so little resonance in their own lives. But it is also one of the most hopeful aspects of the culture that it is Christian, that there is a common vocabulary about love of neighbour and personal sinfulness which can be used to call people to account. Mr Bruton did so; I wish others would.