By Lisa Zengarini & Devin Watkins
Irish Christian Churches joined their voices on Tuesday to call on politicians in Belfast, Dublin, and London to make a coordinated commitment to protect the Good Friday Agreement, as well as the peace and stability of Northern Ireland.
Their appeal comes on the heels of 10 days of clashes in Belfast, a sight unseen in recent years.
The violence was triggered in part by the police’s decision not to prosecute several Sinn Fein lawmakers for breaking Covid restrictions to attend the funeral of a former member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). It also reflects resentment with the Northern Ireland Protocol—a part of the Brexit treaty which the UK negotiated with the EU.
United response needed
Several leaders of Christian Churches issued a joint letter on Tuesday, including Catholic Archbishop Eamon Martin, Primate of All Ireland, Anglican Archbishop John McDowell, and several other heads of Irish churches.
The Christian leaders appealed for all political forces in Northern Ireland to give a “united” response to the “heartbreaking” events of the past week. They also urged them to renew their commitment to peace, reconciliation, and the protection of the most vulnerable.
To safeguard peace
The letter joins a host of other appeals in recent days, and reiterates the urgent need to safeguard the fragile peace achieved with the Good Friday Agreement, signed on 10 April 1998.
The leaders say peace must be protected, so as not to plunge another generation of young people into the darkness of “The Troubles”, which bloodied the region for nearly three decades.
“The significant reduction in violence since 1998 is a major achievement that serves to remind us that the problems we face at present are not insuperable,” they write. “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.”
In spirit of generosity
According to the Christian leaders, Northern Ireland politicians must present their demands to the UK Government and the European Union with a unified voice, in order to resolve the dispute over the application of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“Such a joint approach would be difficult to turn down,” they urge, “but to develop it will require a renewed generosity of spirit from political leaders on all sides of our community.”
Learning from mistakes
The leaders say mistakes have been made, but added that it is more important to learn from their consequences than to “scramble to paper over the cracks.”
The Church leaders say recent violence forces everyone to consider who pays the price for those mistakes, and lament how much the last few days have undermined the years of good work.
“In the past week,” they write, “we have seen people afraid to leave their homes, others at risk of violence as they go about their work, and young people feeling that they have no stake in society or hope for the future.”
Therefore, they add, “it is vital that we address concerns in a way that strengthens our democratic processes”.
The Irish Church leaders conclude their letter expressing their desire to help heal the wounds of the past in Northern Ireland.
“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.”
EU-UK discussions to resume
Meanwhile, Britain and the EU have agreed to resume negotiations regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol, following a legal dispute over Britain’s unilateral decision to change trading conditions.
The two sides have begun technical discussions, and EU Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic and UK negotiator David Frost are expected to meet soon.