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17 September 2015

Stormont and the power to create

Stormont and the power to create

The Northern Ireland Executive is under extreme pressure and at risk of collapse. This is ironically one of the few things that all of the parties agree on. The Government of Northern Ireland is a mandatory power-sharing Executive made up of five parties. For those reading beyond these shores think of the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats all sharing Government together. You can quickly see how disagreements and tensions would arise as each party strives to deliver it’s electoral mandate.

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) withdrew their only Minster from the Executive a few weeks ago. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has used a number of technical tools to allow them to resign most of their Ministers for seven days at a time before reinstating them briefly. The result is that they remain in power to a very limited degree and the Executive hangs on by a thread. If they were to withdraw completely the Executive would fall and an election would be called or power would be taken back by Westminster for an undetermined period.

All-party talks were due to begin on Monday 14 September but at present the parties are talking about talks. Some say this is to deal outright with fundamental concerns to give the talks more chance of success. Others say it is unhelpful to have preconditions and this undermines the process with the potential for secret side deals.

Taking a step back, how has the Northern Ireland Executive arrived at another crisis point? Pressures have come from at least three different directions. The Executive has been at risk for well over a year now because of continued deadlock on agreement over welfare reform. This has had serious implications for budgetary spending in most departments. Serious questions are being raised about the integrity of specific people, parties and public funds in the deal between NAMA and US firm Cerberus. This relates to a sale of ‘bad loans’ and the transparency and value for money of taxpayer bailout funds. Finally and perhaps the straw that is breaking Stormont’s back is the political fall-out from the murder of Kevin McGuigan and the PSNI’s assessment that IRA leadership exist and were involved.

With the potential of institutional collapse, there is more than a little speculation that electoral concerns are driving some agendas. It must also be remembered that 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 political architecture which brought about peace may not be the best vehicle to establish long term stable and accountable governance. These wider considerations frame much of the political landscape at the moment.

It is important to remember that Northern Ireland has come a long way from the ceasefires in 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Many legacy issues remain, not least how to care for victims of violence, but paramilitary murders are not now a weekly feature of our news cycle. Like many other societies emerging from conflict, Northern Ireland, has struggled with how to re-integrate people involved with paramilitary organisations. 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 groupings are difficult and messy but vitally important to the future peace and stability of this place.

As power-struggles continue within the power-sharing Executive we return to the heart of this - the question of power and how it is used.  

The deepest form of power is creation, and that when power takes the form of coercion and violence, it is actually a diminishment and distortion of what it was meant to be.

Why is power a gift? Because power is for flourishing. When power is used well, people and the whole cosmos come more alive to what they were meant to be. And flourishing is the test of power.”  Andy Crouch

It is easier to oppose than to create. We choose to remember our God who creates order and flourishing out of emptiness and chaos. We pray for outcomes in the talks that improve the wellbeing of the most vulnerable and marginalised in Northern Ireland. We pray for outcomes that uphold justice and truth and that are just as bold in their pursuit of mercy and grace. We pray that this crisis/opportunity would be seized to model a power which leads to creation instead of power which corrupts or controls.

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 politicians 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).

Finally, 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.


   Photo credit: Robert Young