Tolerance, an under-rated virtue, is the way to guard against the worst extremes
Toleration can be regarded as a bit of a woolly virtue – worthy, of course, but on the dull spectrum. In fact, it takes determination to be tolerant.
It is easier by far to be extremist, especially for those in politics, where adopting a colourful position helps them to become memorable. Varying levels of extremism have propelled politicians through their careers, from Nigel Farage in Britain, to Geert Wilders in Holland, to Jean-Marie Le Pen in France. In the North, Ian Paisley made his name as a diehard, although he discovered the art of moderation in later life.
His successor, Peter Robinson, encountered a spot of bother recently after appearing to defend a born again Christian preacher who denounced Islam as satanic, in a sermon at a Belfast church which the First Minister attends sometimes.
Mr Robinson responded quickly and effectively by apologising publicly, on the steps of Belfast's Islamic Centre, shaking hands with Islamic leaders. "This society does depend on people from ethnic and religious minorities for the day to day life of our province," he said.
As do all healthy societies. Toleration and moderation are equally important south of the Border, where the Republic is slowly coming to terms with the implications of its founders' failure to establish a clear dividing line between (Catholic) Church and State. From the Magdalene laundries to the industrial schools to the mother and baby homes, one example of wrongdoing after another has emerged.
They can be traced back to a number of factors, among them an adherence to absolutes: the mistaken conviction that choices can always be reduced to good versus evil. That only one way is the right way. And that one religion alone is the key to salvation.
Neither toleration nor moderation was in evidence in the circum- stances contributing to those scandals, and others.
Another mistake has also been allowed to gain credence: the belief that one version of Irishness is the 'best': Gaelic Irishness as opposed to other permutations which were marginalised. Certainly, in the early years of the State, it became clear the otherness of others was mistrusted – and this carries through to the present day.
While most community or political leaders now accept that stoking racial or religious tensions is incendiary, moderation remains an underrated virtue. In the local and European elections, some extremist positions were endorsed by voters.
And in the last US presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney was forced to distance himself from the suggestion that he was a moderate. To appeal to Republican voters, he called himself "a severely conservative governor".
However, it's time someone praised the ethical choice made by those who decide to live in a spirit of give-and-take. Moderates provide a vital balancing role in any society. Their voices may not shout as loudly as those of the ultras, but they point to a progressive middle way.
The West rarely takes inspiration from Africa, but Sierra Leone is leading the vanguard for toleration with a balanced attitude towards religion. Recently, 'The Economist' magazine ran an item highlighting a bumper sticker on public transport in the African state which reads: 'Jesus Loves Allah'.
The author identified a group he defined as 'ChrisMus' which sees nothing wrong with attending a Christian church one day and a Muslim temple the next. Perhaps its war-torn history has helped the Sierra Leonese to appreciate the value of toleration.
It doesn't mean they believe in nothing and everything – simply, that they look for what they share in common rather than what separates them. After all, at their core, most religions teach the same lesson.
Prioritising one religion above another, as happened when the Irish Constitution was framed, is a mistake. It downgrades other faiths. It fails to acknowledge that people ought to have the freedom to practise any religion, and the freedom to embrace none. Atheism is still regarded with suspicion here.
Minorities need to be protected from majorities, not just by legislation, but by a spirit of acceptance. On Easter Sunday, I attended a Church of Ireland service in Castletownshend in west Cork, and was impressed by the inclusive approach taken by its minister when he invited those of other faiths to approach the altar and take Communion. Of all the funeral services I attended at the time of the Omagh bomb, I remember being most moved by the Free Presbyterian one.
Toleration helps to create a balanced society. It matters in the North, where an integrated society is essential to foster peace. But it matters in the Republic, too, where emigrants from a variety of ethnic backgrounds have settled.
Without cultural and religious diversity, the world would be mono-dimensional. Pluralism is something we pay lip service to, but it must go beyond toleration. It must resist prejudice and reject exclusion.
John Adams, a founding father of the United States and its second president, wrote in his 1776 essay 'Thoughts on Government' about the virtues of humility, patience and moderation "without which every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey". People can't co-exist without compromise and accommodation, yet moderation has less instinctive appeal. But toleration has so much more to offer than extremism. It teaches cooperation not competition. Compromise not contest. Respect not resentment. Flexibility not fanaticism.
In Ireland, we are still trying to find a way to have convictions without becoming fanatical. Equally, we need to practise toleration while retaining convictions. But if we can learn one lesson from the Troubles, and from the spate of scandals involving religious institutions, it must be this. The need to guard against extremes.