By Cian Molloy - 11 January, 2020
Today provides an opportunity for a new start for Northern Ireland’s political institutions and one that can also offer fresh hope, say the leaders of Ireland’s four main Churches.
Ireland’s church leaders have welcomed the return of the Northern Ireland Assembly, due to take place at 1 p.m. today, after Sinn Féin, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) backed a plan put together by the Irish and British governments.
The plan, put together by Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Northern Secretary Julian Smith, will see the return of power-sharing in the North, which is only possible under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement if both the largest unionist and nationalist political parties are agreeable.
Power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Féin came to a halt in January 2019 because of the “cash for ash” scandal involving a green energy scheme that offered exceptionally generous financial terms to participants. In the tit-for-tat allegations that followed, the row developed to include disputes about the Irish language, and as politicians bickered, basic public services such as healthcare and education suffered.
Among other things, the “New Decade, New Approach” deal means that the Irish language will have official recognition in Northern Ireland for the first time. It also includes measures to tackle sectarianism and continuing paramilitary activity.
In a joint statement, the leaders of the Church of Ireland, Methodist Church in Ireland, Roman Catholic Church, Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Irish Council of Churches said: “We believe that the agreement is ambitious in its content and reflects a balanced accommodation that is focused on the common good; and one that we hope can begin to address the political and social crisis that has developed due to the prolonged absence of a functioning Executive and Assembly.
“The principles of accountability, transparency and responsibility identified in the agreement are crucial to underpinning sustainable government and ensuring that the experience of the last three years cannot happen again. Along with the development of trust and generosity of spirit, these measures offer an opportunity to build a peaceful and just society that is centred around respect and recognition of each other’s cultural identity.”
The Church leaders – Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh and his Church of Ireland counterpart Archbishop Richard Clarke, Presbyterian Moderator Rev William Henry, Methodist Church President Rev Sam McGuffin and Irish Council of Churches President Rev Brian Anderson – say they welcome the agreement’s renewed focus on reconciliation.
“Last year we initiated a civic dialogue between political parties and representatives from key sectors in civil society across Northern Ireland. Reflecting on that engagement we noted that, ‘when politics is broken the responsibility for fixing it does not rest with the politicians alone,’” the Church leaders said. “We therefore renew our commitment to supporting the new Executive as it begins its work, and along with others in civic society, recognise our collective responsibility for the common good.
“Today is a sign of welcome progress that provides an opportunity for a new start for Northern Ireland’s political institutions and one that can also offer fresh hope. The story of the Christian faith is one of new beginnings, where failure is never final, second chances abound, and all things can be renewed. We will continue to offer our prayers for all involved in making this agreement work, encouraging them, for the sake of the whole community, to grasp fully this new opportunity.”