Christian leaders in Ireland have sent a letter to the leaders of the main political parties in Northern Ireland, calling on them to come to an agreement to form a new government.
The political stalemate began after the nationalist Sinn Féin party made huge gains in a snap election held on March 2, cutting the lead the unionist DUP party held to one seat.
The election had been called after the government collapsed when members of the DUP were accused of corruption in a failed green energy scheme.
The government in Northern Ireland is designed to impose power sharing between predominantly Protestant unionist parties – the DUP and the less hard-line UUP – and predominantly Catholic Irish nationalist parties – Sinn Féin, long considered the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and the moderate SDLP.
Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire has given the parties until June 29 to reach an agreement to form a new Executive, and warned that direct rule from London could be imposed if the parties can’t cut a deal.
The signatories of the letter are Archbishop Eamon Martin, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh; Archbishop Richard Clarke, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh; Rev. Dr. Laurence Graham, President of the Methodist Church in Ireland; Bishop John McDowell, President of the Irish Council of Churches; and the Rt. Rev. Dr. Noble McNeely, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Most religious bodies on the island are “all Ireland,” covering both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The religious leaders wrote the letter to the leaders of the DUP, UUP, Sinn Féin, SDLP, and non-sectarian Alliance Party, to “reemphasize the pressing need for everyone to act together to end the current political impasse in the interests of all in our society.”
The leaders acknowledged the complexity of the negotiations, but said the most vulnerable had the most to lose.
“We want to express our continued concern that without an agreed budget and with no Executive ministers in place, the most vulnerable are at greater risk, while crucial decisions on education, health and welfare are not being taken,” the letter reads.
“At the same time, I am sure you are aware that small voluntary and community groups – who play such a vital role at the heart of our villages, towns and cities – face mounting uncertainty and are finding it increasingly difficult to support those most in need,” the letter continues. “Furthermore, with no Executive there has been comparatively little coordinated local input into the Brexit discussions and even less detailed preparation for what lies ahead for Northern Ireland and the island as a whole.”
Brexit negotiations are of particular concern in Northern Ireland, since the Northern Ireland peace process, aimed at ending the sectarian “Troubles” which led to the deaths of over 3,500 people, was predicated on both the United Kingdom and Ireland being in the European Union.
There are concerns a “hard border” could be imposed between the UK and the EU, meaning passport and custom checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
“As Christians we recognize our responsibility to pray for you and for all those in political authority and no doubt you recognize your responsibility towards the people of Northern Ireland at this time,” the Christian leaders write. “Our prayer and hope is that you and the leaders of the other parties will take the action necessary to end the uncertainty that is weighing heavily on our society.”
The situation in Northern Ireland became more complicated after the June 8 British general elections. The Conservative Party lost its majority in Parliament, and on Monday June 26 agreed to a deal with the DUP to support the Conservative government.
The deal provides for an extra £1 billion for the province, but also means the British government will depend upon one faction in Northern Ireland for its survival, casting suspicion on whether it can fulfill its role of being neutral when dealing with the province.