Church leaders urge protection of peace process gains

Charlie Flanagan and James Brokenshire continue talks with Northern Ireland parties

Dr Eamon Martin: “A culture of blame will only trap us in an endless cycle of instability and insecurity,” he said in a joint statement with other church leaders.  Photograph: Eric Luke

Dr Eamon Martin: “A culture of blame will only trap us in an endless cycle of instability and insecurity,” he said in a joint statement with other church leaders. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

The leaders of the four main churches in Ireland have urged the Northern Ireland parties to protect the achievements of the peace process as talks continue at Stormont to restore devolution.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan who met northern secretary James Brokenshire at Stormont on Wednesday to try to chart a way through the current political impasse stayed overnight in Belfast to engage in further talks.

There was a sense at Stormont that the chief issue blocking a deal – Sinn Féin’s insistence that Arlene Foster cannot return as first minister until the public inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme is completed – is being parked for the moment as parties try to sort out other matters.

Ms Foster said she did not feel she had to raise that issue after she led a DUP delegation in talks with Sinn Féin. “It may well be an issue for them. But, as I have always said, if we get into a situation where we are telling each other’s parties who they should nominate for positions, that becomes very dangerous because we obviously would want to have an indication around Sinn Féin as to who they nominate,” she said.

“So, I think it is wise to focus on the issues, focus on getting devolution back and running again, and that’s where the DUP is,” said Ms Foster.

Troubles killings

The DUP leader said she discussed with Sinn Féin matters such as dealing with the past, the Stormont House Agreement, and the treatment of British soldiers facing police investigations over killings in the Troubles. Talks were continuing “in a very good nature”, she added.

The parties have three weeks to strike a deal to restore the Northern Executive and Assembly, after which the Mr Brokenshire should be obliged to call new elections. Mr Flanagan said the politicians were operating “under a very strict time frame” but he detected a willingness on the part of all parties to engage “constructively”.

All sides, including the two governments and the parties, will have to extend themselves “if we are to achieve the collective objectives of re-establishing the powersharing institutions of the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.

The Sinn Féin Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill, after meeting Mr Flanagan, said “strong political leadership and delivery” were required from the talks. She accused the British government of holding up justice for families whose loved ones were killed during the Troubles

“We don’t want to go through the process of meetings after meetings. We need to see action,” she added.

The SDLP leader Colum Eastwood – also after meeting Mr Flanagan – said he wanted to make clear to unionists that his party was “not out to destroy your culture”.

Nationalism and unionism

“We are not out to marginalise or mistreat you or your community. It is now time to secure a positive accommodation between nationalism and unionism that allows us to meet the challenges that we all face,” he said.

It was against the backdrop of these talks that the four main church leaders warned that peace process gains of recent years must not be taken for granted.

“In any process of conflict resolution, we should be prepared to face setbacks and embrace these challenges as an opportunity to continue to learn from our mistakes, while working to put in place the necessary safeguards,” they said.

“A culture of blame will only trap us in an endless cycle of instability and insecurity,” they added in their joint statement. It was issued by Catholic primate Archbishop Eamon Martin; Church of Ireland primate Archbishop Richard Clarke; Church of Ireland president of the Irish Council of Churches Bishop John McDowell; president of the Methodist Church Rev Bill Mullally; and Moderator of the Presbyterian Church Rev Dr Frank Sellar.