CHURCH leaders in Ireland met the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, on Thursday, to discuss the escalating violence and community tensions in Northern Ireland.
The meeting took place two days after the leaders had published an open letter which called for a “unified” political response to the violence, emphasising the importance of the Good Friday Agreement and the fragility of peace (News, 15 April).
A statement issued by the Irish Government’s press office said that Mr Martin and the church leaders had had “a very constructive discussion on Northern Ireland, including a shared and grave concern at recent incidents of violence on the streets”. They agreed that the causes of the violence were complex “but reiterated that it is essential that calm, measured, and positive leadership be exercised at every level — political, civic, and community, for all the people of Northern Ireland”.
The meeting was attended 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.
Mr Martin and the church leaders also discussed “the complexities and sensitivities” of implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol in the UK’s Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. The violence has been attributed in part to Loyalist resentment of the protocol.
The statement said that Mr Martin and the church leaders also recognised that the centenary of the partition of Ireland represented a “profoundly important and sensitive” moment. They agreed that “it would be important to promote a sensitive, inclusive and respectful approach in the marking of those centenaries still to come”.
Mr Martin welcomed the church leaders’ St Patrick’s Day message, which described the centenary as an opportunity for the Church to “face its own failings” in peace and reconciliation (News, 19 March).
The also discussed the Government’s “Shared Island” initiative, and agreed on “the importance of dialogue, engagement, and respect for all communities and traditions on these islands in fostering reconciliation through the framework of the Good Friday Agreement”, the statement said.
They also talked about how to promote social cohesion as pandemic restrictions are eased in Northern Ireland, “in particular the need to ensure that, as we build towards recovery following the pandemic, that it is inclusive and balanced, leaving no one behind. . .
“The Taoiseach stressed the importance that, as we plot a pathway through recovery and beyond, there is a need to move beyond uniquely economic measures in gauging our progress as a country, to ensure a more holistic approach, which encompasses people’s quality of life.”
The statement concluded: “The Taoiseach and church leaders agreed the pandemic has posed challenges for all of our citizens in terms of their mental health and wellbeing, and recognised the importance of faith to the spiritual and mental well-being of many people and communities, and look forward to the time when church services and other in-person activities can resume.”
In the open letter issued two days before the meeting, the church leaders wrote: “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 church leaders wrote 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 said, and, while, mistakes are inevitable, “Learning from the consequences of miscalculations is much better than an endless scramble to paper over the cracks.”