19 January 2017
What’s going on in Northern Ireland?
Following a dramatic few months, even by Northern Irish political standards, an election has been called for the second time in less than a year. What's going on?
Well firstly, perspective is vital in moments like this.
In 1998 our political leaders at that time agreed that those who had murdered people in the troubles would be released from prison. They further agreed that if someone walked into a police station and confessed to a troubles-related crime in the future, including terrorism and mass murder, the highest sentence they could receive from a court would be two years.
In 2007 Ian Paisley, founder and then leader of both the DUP and the Free Presbyterian Church, agreed to share power with Martin McGuinness, former IRA commander. In 2013 the same lifelong Republican Martin McGuinness shook hands with the monarch and head of the British state Queen Elizabeth.
Over the years we have come a very long way and yet there have been many moments where the Northern Ireland Assembly has hung on by a thread.
Stormont has been raided by the PSNI and allegations of collusion with both state forces and terrorists have been traded across the chamber. It's ironic then that a seemingly innocuous scheme, the Renewable Heating Incentive, to encourage people to transition to renewable fuel precipitated the fall of the Assembly.
The story quickly centred around the DUP and in particular the first minister Arlene Foster who was the minister in charge of the scheme at its inception. Calls came quickly from the opposition and Sinn Fein, the DUP's partners in government, for her to step aside for a period of time so an inquiry could take place. These calls were rebutted in the strongest possible terms. Stalemate.
On Monday 5 January events took a dramatic turn when the deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned from his position. Due to the power sharing nature of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, this decision simultaneously removed Arlene Foster from her position as first minster. Sinn Fein had one week to nominate another MLA to the position, they refused to do so and so the secretary of state was required to call an election. We go to the polls on 2 March when incidentally, this election will also be the first to feature a reduction in the number of MLAs to 90, one for each constituency.
There has been a lot of public anger about the handling of the RHI scheme and the collapse of government especially at a time when good governance is so critical. Health and education services are under huge strain and many are struggling to meet everyday needs. The four B's of boilers, 'bedroom tax', the budget and Brexit are unlikely to be solved by this election.
In fact many more issues are being added to the negotiating table day by day, including legacy inquests, abortion and marriage and the very constitutional structures themselves. Much good has come from the devolved Assembly, but it seems like the 'too difficult to resolve' pile just collapsed on top of the 'to do' list.
We are concerned that if post-election negotiations are not genuinely fruitful on these difficult issues, direct rule could be more than a short-term solution.
Before the last elections in May 2016, the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland published People and Place, designed to inspire vision and offer values and foundations for a flourishing Northern Ireland.
We proposed a common ground of reconciled communities, good stewardship, a government with a shared purpose and healthy relationships. In the face of a new election our vision has not changed. In fact the questions we asked eight months ago are perhaps even more important today.
What kind of people are we becoming?
What kind of place are we creating?
What kind of people and place could we be?
We'd really encourage you read People and Place, to pray and reflect on it as you consider casting your vote.
Finally, it's easy to fall into two traps, expecting too little or indeed too much from our politicians. Expect too little and we fail to hold them rightly to account. Expect too much and we fail to hold ourselves to account.
In the kingdom of God, leadership often looks very different to what we see around us and in a truly flourishing society everyone has a part to play.
This includes the Church, and so (as detailed in People and Place) we call our politicians to work for the wellbeing of our community with the measure to which we ourselves are willing to strive.
We need truth and grace in these moments. Either without the other betrays any meaningful understanding of relationship. Christians believe truth, grace and relationship are all ultimately found in the person of Jesus Christ. It is to him who we ultimately turn, trust and seek to follow in these days.
So nearly 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, at another critical moment in the history of this land, we pray for our political leaders and we pray that we too would have the courage to play our part.