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18 June 2015

An update from Northern Ireland

An update from Northern Ireland

There's never a dull news week in Northern Ireland and the past seven days were no exception. So rather than focus on one area of policy for PQ this month, here's a brief update across four areas where some strong words have been uttered this week and where we strive to be a distinctive salt and light presence.

In a warning to Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and the Chief Constable, the Orange Order said this week that 'Orangemen will not do the police's job for them.' The Marching season is already underway and although thousands of parades pass off peacefully every year a few contentious ones are the cause of great concern, tension and financial cost. Orangemen march to mark their civil and religious freedoms which they link back to the triumph of King William of Orange and his 'Glorious Revolution.' Also in the past few days we have heard of more details of agents and collusion between British forces and paramilitaries on both sides of the political divide. Both these issues highlight the need for structures and processes to manage parades and to begin to recover truth and justice from our past. However more than structures and process both these issues highlight the urgency for new and restored relationships and for healing. This is a difficult and sensitive space we inhabit and we have asked ourselves and the Church some difficult questions. Finally both these issues were included in the Stormont House Agreement which sets out a skeleton framework for how as a society we might take these issues forward. The whole Agreement seems to have been parked for now due to the stalemate on welfare reform.

Just yesterday Ivan Lewis told the Northern Ireland Executive that when it comes to welfare reform 'there is no extra money coming from Westminster.' It seems on this issue that the Northern Ireland Executive is caught between many tensions. The responsibility, for example, towards the vulnerable and the responsibility to be financially accountable, or the broken tension between financial reality and political ideology. Then add into the mix the party political tensions - for Sinn Fein it's the tension between running a party in two jurisdictions and for Unionists it's the tension between making devolution work and reverting to Westminster rule. Again this is a difficult space to navigate and so we point to the biblical tension between wise stewardship and overflowing generosity, between looking after the needs of the individual and the wellbeing of the entire community. We champion the work of our local member Churches and organisations, many of whom are at the frontlines of caring for local communities physically, emotionally and spiritually in these difficult times. Perhaps one point of agreement between the political camps is that both sides in this debate want to protect the 'most vulnerable' –unfortunately there is not agreement on the best way to do that or even on who the most vulnerable are.

On Monday, the 'most vulnerable' were at the centre of a Judicial Review which began in the Belfast High Court brought by the NI Human Rights Commission. The barrister for the Commission said: 'Northern Ireland's Courts cannot avoid issues such as abortion because they were too morally sensitive, politically controversial or too difficult.' The judicial review is seeking to change the law to allow for abortion in the circumstance of 'rape, incest or serious malformation of the foetus.' We believe that human rights have been corrupted from their noble origins when they are used to further the rights of some human beings by directly denying the human dignity of others. We reject the false dichotomy in the abortion debate which pitches the rights of a mother against her own unborn child. Both woman and unborn child are vulnerable in this moment. Instead we seek the life, health and flourishing of both. Again like all these issues this is a deeply sensitive space and we have more detail on how we approach pregnancy crisis here. We believe the law in Northern Ireland does not need to change but in the meantime, while the legal disputes about the law continue, our focus remains on helping woman and unborn children in a pregnancy crisis through practical support and perinatal hospice care.

Finally it's back to parades, relationships and civil freedoms. On Saturday thousands of people paraded for the cause of 'equal marriage'. The Northern Ireland Director of Amnesty International, one of the co-organisers of the parade, said 'it is simply unacceptable for the State to discriminate against people on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity.' Following thereferendum on marriage in the South, Northern Ireland now finds itself the only jurisdiction in these islands where marriage remains legally defined between a man and a woman. It's clear that equality and discrimination are central to this ongoing debate but that understandings of these terms varies greatly. As pursuers of justice we do not wish to see anyone discriminated against by the law however we define marriage as a relationship over a right and fundamentally disagree that it is discriminatory simply by virtue of involving a man and a woman. We are involved in many ongoing conversations in the public square and within the Church about the best way to respond publicly and pastorally to these complex issues. Again as the legal and political debate continues and whatever the outcome, we encourage our Church members to invest in their own marriages through marriage courses and to teach and model faithful covenant marriage in local congregations and communities.