CHURCH leaders in Ireland have called for a “unified” political response to the escalating violence and community tensions in Northern Ireland, emphasising the importance of the Good Friday Agreement and the fragility of peace.
In an open letter to Northern Irish political leaders, the governments of the UK and Ireland, and the European Union, published on Tuesday, they write: “We appeal to our political leaders to come together in a unified response to the heartbreaking scenes witnessed on our streets last week and renew their commitment to peace, reconciliation and the protection of the most vulnerable.
“The causes of this most recent outbreak of violence are complex and, in some respects, deep-rooted. Church representatives and other community leaders working on the ground in affected communities have spoken to us of their frustration at seeing another generation of young people risk their lives and their futures because repeated warnings about the need to treat our fragile peace with care went unheeded.”
The letter is signed by the Anglican and RC Archbishops of Armagh, the Most Revd John McDowell and Most Revd Eamon Martin; the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly, the Rt Revd Dr David Bruce; the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Revd Dr Tom McKnight; and the President of the Irish Council of Churches, the Very Revd Dr Ivan Patterson.
Last week, Archbishop McDowell and three other bishops in Northern Ireland called for calm. Loyalist anger over post-Brexit trading arrangements, and the decision not to prosecute people who attended the large-scale funeral of the republican Bobby Storey during lockdown last year, spilled over into violence and rioting on the streets (News, 9 April).
In the letter this week, the Church leaders write that the current tensions are “not insuperable. . . But that experience also teaches us that these challenges can only be addressed by political leaders coming together with a genuine desire to find solutions and accommodations which meet the legitimate concerns of others as well as their own.”
Relationships, particularly trade agreements, must be protected in the context of Brexit, they say, and, while, mistakes are inevitable, “Learning from the consequences of miscalculations is much better than an endless scramble to paper over the cracks.”
The letter continues: “Persistent levels of socio-economic inequality in the areas worst impacted by violence, over two decades after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, demand more sustained attention and meaningful intervention by political leaders.
“The Agreement provided for regular and transparent engagement of civic leaders in policy development, but in practice this has been implemented only in a very limited way, and all too often as an emergency response rather than a preventative measure. Churches, together with other civic leaders, are keen to play our part in addressing the root causes of violence and working to ensure all communities here can enjoy the benefits of peace into the future.”