Religious leaders in Ireland are calling on Irish, British, and Northern Irish politicians to renew their “commitment to peace, reconciliation and the protection of the most vulnerable” in the face of ongoing violence in Northern Ireland.
Flareups in Protestant areas began at the beginning of the month after post-Brexit trading rules – which establish a de facto trade border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom – led to supply problems in shops. In addition, tensions grew worse between the ruling factions of the Protestant-Catholic power-sharing government in Belfast.
“The causes of this most recent outbreak of violence are complex and, in some respects, deep-rooted,” notes the April 12 letter from the Church Leaders Group (Ireland) has written an open letter to political leaders in Northern Ireland, the Governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and the European Union.
“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 continues.
It was signed by Archbishop Eamon Martin, the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland; Anglican Archbishop John McDowell, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland; Dr. David Bruce, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland; Dr. Tom McKnight, President of the Methodist Church in Ireland; and Dr. Ivan Patterson, President of the Irish Council of Churches.
The religious leaders were especially concerned about the effect of the recent violence on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to “The Troubles” – a 30-year conflict that left over 3,500 people dead.
Much of the 1998 peace accord was undergirded by Ireland and the UK’s common membership in the European Union, and the Brexit process has shaken the agreement to its core.
One of the provisions of the accords was an open border on the island of Ireland, and the Brexit agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union creates a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The Irish religious leaders said the Good Friday Agreement “has rightly been held up as a beacon of hope for societies in conflict around the world.”
“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. 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,” their letter states.
They add that the political outcomes of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Brexit deal are “difficult to address because they are tied in with very big issues of world trade and sovereignty.”
“The only way in which these will be constructively handled, from a Northern Ireland point of view, and with a good chance of a successful outcome, is if the European Union (including the Irish Government) and the Government of the United Kingdom are approached jointly by the entire Northern Ireland Executive advocating for the protection of the common good across the whole of Northern Ireland. Such a joint approach would be difficult to turn down, but to develop it will require a renewed generosity of spirit from political leaders on all sides of our community,” the religious leaders continue.
In their letter, they noted that leaders, organisations and communities make mistakes, but said in such circumstances, “there is nothing ignoble in showing genuine sorrow… Learning from the consequences of miscalculations is much better than an endless scramble to paper over the cracks.”
“We also have to face the difficult questions about who pays the price for our failings. In the past week 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. Much good work on the ground has been undermined as tension has risen and confidence has plummeted,” the religious leaders said, adding that it’s been “horrific to witness the intensity of the violence” aimed at the police.
They concluded their letter by pointing out that the Good Friday 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,” the Irish religious leaders said.