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LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Irish Church leaders called on the UK government to take “urgent action” to tackle the cost-of-living crisis in a meeting with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Leaders of the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion’s Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Methodist Church in Ireland, and the Irish Council of Churches met with Chris Heaton-Harris on Wednesday.
The Conservative Party member was confirmed in his role by new UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Tuesday.
“We stressed the need for urgent action to be taken in light of the fact that the people of Northern Ireland are experiencing the worst cost of living crisis in generations,” the members of the Church Leaders’ Group (Ireland) said in a statement.
(Most Christian denominations in Ireland are “all-Ireland” and encompass both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.)
“Together we were able to relay to him the reality of life for ordinary people from across our congregations and parishes, outlining the significant stress that is being caused by the fear of what is coming in the months ahead and the uncertainty about the support that is being offered,” the statement continued.
“While outlining some of the initiatives that our Churches are undertaking on the ground, as they seek to make a difference, we took the opportunity to urge the Secretary of State to give the clarity that is needed in relation to the support that has been promised, especially for the most vulnerable in our society, who are always affected the most when there is a cost of living crisis,” the Christian leaders said.
Northern Ireland has been in a political deadlock since the nationalist party Sinn Féin got the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly in May. The unionist DUP has refused to form a government, citing the Northern Ireland Protocol between the UK and European Union agreed to after Brexit, which would create a de facto trade border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The deadline to form a government was missed this week, and Heaton-Harris pledged to call new elections on Friday.
In their statement, the Church leaders said they discussed “the current uncertainty around the political situation in Northern Ireland and the importance of maintaining stability” in the province.
“We also took the opportunity to highlight the increasingly strained relationships on these islands, and within local communities, caused by the outworking of Brexit and the resulting Northern Ireland Protocol,” it continued.
“Together we urged the Secretary of State to encourage his colleague, the Foreign Secretary, to work for a negotiated settlement with the European Union that deals with both the trade issues, and enables people to be secure in their identity, allowing relationships to improve.”
“As Church Leaders we also raised two important issues that the UK government had acted on in recent years – the introduction of the most liberal abortion regime on these islands, and the current legacy bill before Parliament – outlining the concerns of many on both these highly sensitive issues,” the letter concluded.
The leaders were referencing the 2019 decision by the UK government to impose legalized abortion in Northern Ireland, which had been the only part of the United Kingdom where it was outlawed. The unprecedented unilateral move by London was objected to by Church leaders and the DUP, which is a historically Presbyterian party. However, the nationalist Sinn Féin – which opposed British rule in Northern Ireland – was mute on the subject.
Meanwhile the Northern Ireland Troubles (legacy and reconciliation) Bill, would create an effective amnesty for those accused of murdering or injuring people during the Troubles, the 30-year conflict between the IRA and British government and unionist paramilitary forces that left over 3,500 people dead.
After his meeting with the Church leaders, Heaton-Harris tweeted that it was “an insightful discussion” on the challenges facing communities in Northern Ireland.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome