By Linda Bordoni
Ireland’s Church leaders have welcomed the return of the Northern Ireland Assembly, 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 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 in agreement.
A Plenary Session of the Assembly on Saturday will see the election of a DUP First Minister and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister along with a team of ministerial colleagues. Thanks to the deal the Assembly and Executive are to sit again for the first time in three years.
A sign of welcome progress
In their statement, the leaders of the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Irish Council of Churches said the Stormont Agreement, reached on Thursday night, 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 wide-ranging deal contains compromise solutions to the vexed disputes at the heart of the 36-month power-sharing impasse. It addresses a series of issues including a dispute about the Irish language and will be accompanied by what the UK Government has promised will be a major investment package.
Parties have until 13 January to reach agreement or a new assembly election could be called.
Reiterating the fact that the faith-based organizations have continuously sought to encourage all those involved to “work creatively and courageously towards a deal that would see Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions up and running again”, they describe the Stormont Deal, entitled New Decade, New Approach, as ambitious in its content and reflecting a balanced accommodation focused on the common good: “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 Church leaders’ statement praises the principles of accountability, transparency and responsibility, identified in the agreement, which it says,” are crucial to underpinning sustainable government and ensuring that the experience of the last three years cannot happen again.”
It also notes that the development of trust offers “an opportunity to build a peaceful and just society that is centred around respect and recognition of each other’s cultural identity.”
“As Church leaders, we also welcome the renewed focus on reconciliation, which will be central to the Executive’s approach, and welcome practical commitments to extend welfare mitigations, address significant challenges in education and health, tackle the mental health crisis, and deal with the continued scourge of paramilitarism and sectarianism,” the statement reads.
The Church leaders jointly commit to support the new Executive as it begins its work, and along with others in civic society, recognise their collective responsibility for the common good.
New start, fresh hope
“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 statement concludes, noting that “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.”
The signatories of the statement are 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.