LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Christian leaders in Northern Ireland have called on political parties to work to restore local rule to the province, as talks take a pause for Christmas.

The Belfast-based local government was called for by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended “The Troubles,” the 30 years of sectarian violence which led to the deaths of over 3,500 people.

Under the rules of the agreement, the Northern Ireland government must involve members of both pro-British Unionist parties and pro-Irish unity Nationalist parties, which are predominantly Protestant and Catholic, respectively.

However, the power sharing deal collapsed in 2017, and new government hasn’t been able to be formed in nearly three years.

The leaders of the Church of Ireland, Methodist Church in Ireland, Catholic Church, Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Irish Council of Churches issued a joint statement on Dec. 23 calling for all parties to work to overcome their differences.

Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, the Primate of all Ireland, signed on behalf of the Catholic Church.

“Like many across our community, we are disappointed that it has not been possible to restore the devolved institutions before Christmas. As leaders of Ireland’s main churches, we want to encourage all those taking part and we pray that, together, they fully grasp this opportunity when they return to the negotiating table in January,” the statement said.

“It is incumbent on all of us to recognize the road that has been travelled since the collapse of the Executive nearly three years ago. It is a journey that has damaged our health service and our schools. It has also nurtured a growing sense of despair in our politics and contributed to additional hardships and worry experienced by the most vulnerable people in our society,” the church leaders continued.

Since the deal collapsed, Northern Ireland has been under the direct rule of London. English and Scottish leaders this year took advantage of the lack of local rule in Northern Ireland to impose abortion and same-sex marriage on the province in October, a measure which received support from none of the Northern Irish MP’s in the UK Parliament and was vehemently opposed by local church leaders.

“While we acknowledge that points of difference obviously remain, the goal of restoring devolution remains within reach, even if it still rests a little way off. We add our collective support for this process and encourage those taking part to continue working creatively and courageously towards a deal that can bring stability and begin to restore a sense of hope. For the sake of the whole community, we urge all our political representatives to go that extra mile,” the church leaders’ statement said.

“It is our prayer that through generosity of spirit and courageous leadership a balanced accommodation that serves the common good, and has reconciliation at its heart, can be found and one that will lead to a sustainable power-sharing executive in the New Year. As the talks pause over the Christmas period and our thoughts turn once more to the birth of the Prince of Peace, it is our prayer that the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will also rest upon the whole community and the land that we share,” the statement concluded.

The failure to create a government in Belfast is one of several factors to have put strains on the Good Friday Agreement. The looming Brexit will take the United Kingdom out of the European Union, which ensured the lack of border controls and customs which helped undergird the deal.

In addition, there have been calls to reintroduce 50/50 recruiting in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which has seen Catholic membership stall in recent years in a force that many Catholics still suspect of the bias which plagued its predecessor, the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome

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