The wisdom of the “Historic Problem”


When Lady Thatcher made the decision to hand Hong Kong back to China, nobody was more surprised than the recipients of her legalistic approach. She was a person who was culturally programmed to honour a legal agreement and so, when the lease of the territory expired, it was second nature to her to honour the terms of the original treaty.

The Chinese Government was reportedly pleased, but surprised and unprepared for such straightforward dealing, for they had mentally  resigned  themselves for a diplomatic impasse.

For them, a failure to honour the agreement was expected, and they had readied themselves to see the issue kicked into the long grass; they had a politically cultural concept called the “Historic Problem” which was tailor made for this kind of difficulty. They wanted an outcome, but were quite pragmatic and patient if it did not come about at any given time.

It is a most useful concept, and one we in the West would do well to understand and adopt.

This last week has seen a number of issues and occasions where it might come in useful.

The Queen has welcomed the first Irish President on a State visit. That is a historic first, but equally important she welcomed Martin McGuiness, a former IRA commander, to a white tie and tails reception.

She has been welcomed by the Pope and for the first time wore lilac instead of the customary black. The Pope has acknowledged her spiritual status and asked her to pray for him. There is no ready healing of schism, yet the two can walk together in fellowship.

In another small first, Archbishop Justin has taken part in an LBC radio phone -in explaining the problems which the Church has in recognising gay marriage. This and women bishops have huge implications for Anglicans in an African context where people can die in such controversies. He explained that he has to be very circumspect in what he says for important pastoral reasons.

Sajid Javid has succeeded Maria Miller as Culture Secretary, becoming the first Cabinet Minister of Muslim origin and, as an opponent of Gay Marriage, is stepping into the shoes of one who piloted that legislation through.

In each of these cases a recourse to the idea of the “Historic Problem” is a wise course of action we can do well to adopt.

Our cultural mindset is always to resolve problems swiftly, to contend, to vote, to triumph. Yet some problems will never be solved in that way. Even a triumph does not always make the problem go away as the Ulster context readily demonstrates.

Her Majesty provoked some surprise and criticism for inviting Mr McGuiness to break bread wither her, given his terrorist background. Having said that, no doubt Mr McGuiness will have received similar criticism for accepting her invitation. Both have lost close family or friend in the lengthy conflict.

Her Majesty has experience of bringing a long spoon with her to such meetings, having  necessarily entertained a long succession of tyrants and dictators whilst discharging her duties on our behalf. Mr McGuinness cannot have been a more distasteful guest to someone of her generation than Emperor Hirohito, or any number of post-colonial despots who have crossed her threshold.

If she can cope, then so must we.

There will have been significantly less tensions at the meetings between the Queen, the Pope and the Archbishop. That this is the case, only goes to prove that patience and time draw the sting from the recollections of past controversies. One can intellectually re-fan the flames, but the wise do not do so, anymore than the father of the Prodigal Son began his greeting with a litany of his son’s folly and ingratitude.

So it needs to be as Mr Javid takes up his ministerial brief.

Brother Ivo does not know the degree to which Mr Javid maintains his family faith; Brother Ivo is with Queen Elizabeth I on this one – disinclined to make a window into men’s souls. It is perfectly reasonable for Mr Javid to hold to his views whether they are religiously based, culturally based or even out of respect for the family and culture from which he comes.

Brother Ivo hopes that in this country we follow the Chinese example of long term tolerance: if that is culturally dissonant we can always pray in aid Nelson with his telescope who famously “saw no ships”.

There is a time to see a problem, there is a time to lay it aside for another time. The more militant gay activists have yet to learn this wisdom, as they complain at his appointment, but we can be patient ourselves and have recourse to the lovely teaching of Ecclesiastes that “To every thing there is a season”.

Put another way, not every historic problem needs to be resolved today.

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