There seems to be no end in sight to the fighting and suffering in the war in Ukraine. Since February 24 of last year, hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions more have been forced to flee from their homes.

As the war drags on, we risk giving up on peace and becoming numb to the suffering of victims. While Ukraine has the right to defend its sovereignty and firmly reject Russian aggression with the necessary aid, everything must be done so that the inevitability of war gives way to paths of dialogue that lead to a just peace.

All people of goodwill should vigorously support the efforts of Pope Francis to focus more on winning peace rather than on winning wars.

War only brings death, destruction and resentment that lasts generations. The drumbeats of war are drowning out the voices of those who plead for peace. And, yet, even in the midst of so much violence, the seeds of dialogue need to be sown. When the tenuous threads of dialogue are broken, the bottomless pit of never-ending conflict opens up.

As Pope Francis remarked following his visit to Bahrain, “dialogue is the oxygen of peace” and all countries have a duty and responsibility – including Malta as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council – to invest in peace by building bridges of dialogue which never ignore horrible truths and embrace that justice without which peace would be a mere illusion.

Our work for the promotion of dialogue should, however, not be limited to faraway lands. It is also urgently needed here in Malta. All too often, our society seems to be at war with itself, with public discourse becoming ever more polarised.

When it comes to our participation in the complexity of public life, we do not have to choose between a naïve passivity that accepts everything uncritically and an aggressive attitude which seeks to destroy and discredit our ‘adversary’. There is always a third option: dialogue.

Unfortunately, in this area, the example set by our political leaders leaves much to be desired.

The controversy surrounding the post of commissioner for standards in public life is just one instance where our politicians have failed us because they preferred to score political points against each other rather than engaging in a truthful process of dialogue to reach consensus on a suitable candidate.

The legal requirement of a two-thirds majority is meant in itself as a mechanism to bring together both sides of parliament for an honest and fruitful dialogue. However, politicians tend to prefer to use it as an exercise in horse-trading between the parties… at our expense.

Another example of a lack of culture in dialogue is the absence of a serious debate on the legal provisions required to protect the life of a pregnant woman while, at the same time, safeguarding the life of the child she is carrying.

For true dialogue to happen in the public sphere, public consultations should never be reduced to a box-ticking exercise.

Stakeholders and NGOs should, for example, be given the necessary space, time and resources to put forward informed views on matters of national concern.

Information requested through parliamentary questions or freedom of information requests should be released promptly. Too often, such information is being withheld from the public domain on flimsy grounds, thus making it impossible to engage in any meaningful dialogue on important issues, such as the correct use of public funds, energy provision, protection of life at sea and environmental protection.

Notwithstanding the dominant narrative, respectful dialogue is not an unrealistic ideal.

In fact, it is the only reasonable – albeit messy – door to a just and lasting peace, whether in Ukraine or in our midst. Whenever we allow space for constructive dialogue, we resist a culture of exclusion that shuts out uncomfortable voices and pushes them to the periphery.

Whenever we engage in dialogue, we commit ourselves to building a society that is kinder than the one we currently live in, which is considered to be brutal and harsh by too many of us.

Real dialogue can also be one of the best ways of counteracting the worrying increase in the number of disillusioned young people who feel disconnected from politics and are losing hope of ever witnessing any positive and meaningful change in their lifetime when it comes to important issues such as our natural environment.

More often than not, sincere offers of dialogue will be rebuffed and met with derision. But unless we want to resign ourselves to a world and to a society in which violent division prevails over fraternal encounter, “dialogue must always be carried out”, according to Pope Francis, or “at least offered”.

“This is good also for those who offer it,” he says, “because it helps them to breathe.” Who are we to disagree?

Daniel Darmanin

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times of Malta (26/02/2023)