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28 August 2015

Think Friday: They have(n't) gone away you know

Think Friday: They have(n't) gone away you know

Twenty years ago in Belfast city hall Gerry Adams uttered perhaps his most famous words. Just this week he echoed them again but with the opposite conclusion - the IRA has "gone away".

The Chief Constable of Northern Ireland takes a different view, stating: "Some of the Provisional IRA structure from the 1990s remains broadly in place," but its purpose "has radically changed since this period". The Secretary of State has also commented that it should come as "no surprise" that some IRA structures are still in place.

Since the murder of Kevin McGuigan on 12 August, public attention has focussed on exactly this - the existence of the IRA, their alleged role in his killing and the political ramifications. Victims of alleged IRA killings since decommissioning have been voicing their concerns and Unionists have been seeking clarity and demanding action. The DUP say usual business cannot continue, and at this point in time are seeking to exclude Sinn Fein from the Executive. Events escalated on Wednesday when the Ulster Unionist Party announced their intention to withdraw from the Northern Ireland Executive and sit in opposition. The two other Executive parties say it is too early to be able to assess taking such steps. The UUP's withdrawal is not in itself enough to end the current power-sharing Executive. However, at this stage even the political experts seem uncertain as to exactly what processes and timescales will be initiated if the local political institutions fall.

The story has attracted huge interest because of the potential consequences if the Assembly were to collapse, but also because of the principles and party politics involved. Here are some observations and questions which might be helpful to consider in approaching this complex and live situation:-

  • Northern Ireland has come a long way from the ceasefires in 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Many legacy issues remain but paramilitary murders are not now a weekly feature of our news cycle. This context is important.
  • The Executive has been in crisis for months. Politicians from various parties have talked openly about the potential collapse of the Assembly because of failure to agree on welfare reform. Such a collapse could trigger early elections before those scheduled for May 2016. These recent events did not happen in a political vacuum and some commentators would say they have brought forward the inevitable.
  • The Stormont House Agreement contained provisions to create a formal opposition in the Assembly and to reduce the number of MLAs and departments. Major institutional change is looming and has already been agreed by all parties in principle.
  • The crux of this issue is not just the existence of the IRA but any alleged links that a leadership structure may have existed into present-day Sinn Fein, an Executive party. There is no doubt that this story raises important questions and that assurances are required.
  • The PSNI have long made clear that loyalist paramilitaries continue to exist and operate. Will Unionist parties in the Executive continue to share platforms and form allegiances with such groupings and their representatives?
  • Like many other societies emerging from conflict, Northern Ireland has struggled with how to re-integrate people involved with paramilitary organisations at a grass roots level. Many former paramilitaries diverted their energies and power into local community work, others into criminality. Questions about how politicians and the PSNI manage any such structured groupings are difficult and messy, but vitally important to the future peace and stability of this place.
  • We choose to remember the bereaved families at the centre of recent killings the many families for whom this conversation about paramilitary murder will raise untold hurt and pain.
  • Politics and political-legal agreements are important, but can only take us so far. These events have exposed a lack of trust and real relationships at the heart of government. We pray for new, real and robust relationships among our politicians. What does leadership look like in these moments?
  • We pray for wisdom and bravery for all our elected leaders, that they would earnestly lead us towards societal restoration. Many people who profess faith in Jesus are involved in local politics and the Executive. They will take different views about what is in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. We pray that those who profess to follow Jesus would take seriously the cost of carrying His cross. We pray they will experience good pastoral care within their Church communities as they make difficult decisions.
  • In the face of uncertainty we remind ourselves of Daniel 4:32 "...the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom He will." Scriptures like this and Psalm 2 clearly point to God's sovereignty over all the earth. The big picture painted in the gospel gives us our place and perspective as citizens of the eternal kingdom Jesus inaugurated, yet to be fulfilled (Rev 21).
  • Politicians, PSNI and former paramilitaries all have a role in peace-making and so must the local Church. At the heart of the gospel is the message of reconciliation between God and humanity through Jesus. We still have work to do in how we contextualise, incarnate and embody this message in Northern Ireland in 2015. May you bless others with your conversation as you wrestle through this unfolding story with us.