THE political instability caused by the breakdown in relations between parties to the Northern Ireland Assembly is causing greater hardship to the poor, the leaders of the four main Churches in Ireland have warned.
All-party talks began in Belfast on Monday to resolve the impasse that has paralysed the Assembly, triggered by Unionist and DUP walk-outs after the PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton suggested last month that police believed that the IRA still existed in some form. This followed what is believed to be a tit-for-tat double murder of two prominent former IRA men in the city.
Sinn Féin continues to deny this, stating that the IRA “has gone away and will not return”. There is also a dispute over proposed welfare cuts in the Province, which neither Sinn Féin nor the SDLP is prepared to accept.
The church leaders issued a statement on Tuesday in which they implicitly blamed the politicians for failing to protect the most vulnerable in society: “As Northern Ireland’s elected representatives continue to negotiate the future of our political institutions, an awareness of their shared responsibility for the common good needs to be at the heart of the discussion.
“Threats to the peace process are most keenly felt in those areas that benefited least from the progress of recent years. A long-term vision, which includes effective measures to address poverty and socio-economic inequality, is essential to rebuild trust and advance the work of reconciliation.
“As church leaders, committed to the principles of scripture and the teaching of Jesus, we believe it is right to bring a Christian perspective to the concerns of our community at this time. . .
“For the rising number of people struggling to cope on low incomes, the current political instability brings further anxiety. In addition to uncertainty about the impact of welfare reform, cuts to essential public services, and the failure to agree a budget for future service provision have significant implications for the most vulnerable members of our society.
“As Christians, we have a responsibility not only to give generously to address immediate social need, but to work with political leaders and the wider community to change the structures that are trapping people in cycles of poverty.
“The unacceptable level of child poverty, affecting over 100,000 children — roughly six per cent of Northern Ireland’s population — constitutes a real crisis. Supports that have proved to be effective in recent years in addressing inequality, and closing the gap in crucial areas such as educational disadvantage, are now being withdrawn through lack of funding.”
The statement was signed by the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Revd Brian Anderson; the Anglican and Roman Catholic Archbishops of Armagh, Dr Richard Clarke and Dr Eamon Martin respectively; the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Revd Dr Ian McNie; and the President of the Irish Council of Churches, the Revd Dr Donald Watts.
The Stormont talks continue, observed by the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan TD; and the Secretary for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers.
Last week, Ms Villiers announced that there was to be an independent investigative panel to look into the current status of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland.
The members of the panel are to be Lord Carlile QC, a Liberal Democrat peer and reviewer of terrorism legislation between 2001 and 2011; Rosalie Flanagan, who was director of executive services to First and Deputy First Ministers from 2002 until 2010; and Stephen Shaw QC, a specialist in litigation, mediation, and arbitration. They will report in mid-October.