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N Irish bishop criticizes UK plan to end inquests, prosecutions related to the Troubles

July 15, 2021 Catholic News Agency 0
A pupil from Holy Cross Girls’ School with a soldier from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. / public domain.

Armagh, Northern Ireland, Jul 15, 2021 / 17:01 pm (CNA).

The British government has announced a plan to halt all prosecutions related to the 20th century religious-fueled conflicts in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, drawing criticism from the Archbishop of Armagh.

The proposition, brought by Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis, would impose a statute of limitations that would effectively ban legal proceedings on all Troubles-related incidents. 

The plan has drawn criticism from Northern Irish lawmakers and victims’ groups, with Northern Ireland First Minister Paul Givan calling the plans a “further insult to victims.”

Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh wrote in a July 15 letter that in light of the UK government’s plan, “it is disturbing that victims and survivors, those who have paid the highest price for the fragile peace we all enjoy today, once more feel marginalised and neglected.”

The proposal would also end legacy inquests— investigations into the circumstances of deaths during the Troubles— as well as civil actions related to the conflict brought against state agencies.

The Secretary did not discuss the possibility of halting ongoing court proceedings in Troubles-related cases, of which there are currently eight.

Despite nearly 4,000 deaths during the Troubles, there have been only nine Troubles-era prosecutions in the past six years, the BBC reported. 

“We are finally bringing forward a solution to this problem, to enable the people of Northern Ireland to draw a line under the Troubles and to enable the people of Northern Ireland to move forward,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at the plan’s announcement. 

Archbishop Martin pointed to an April 2020 statement from the body of Irish bishops, in which they highlighted the importance of victims being given priority “as the focal point of any response to addressing the legacy of the past,” and reiterated support for “the ongoing pursuit of appropriate criminal, legal and civic justice for all victims.”

The archbishop questioned who stands to benefit from the present proposed plan. 

“Dealing with the legacy of our shared past is not an easy task. It is a complex undertaking which belongs to all of us. It has no ‘quick-fix’. No ‘line can be drawn’ to relieve the deep hurt still carried in the aftermath of years of violence, death and life-changing injury,” he said. 

Lewis said the proposals also include a body to help families recover information on Troubles incidents, and an oral history initiative, the BBC reported. 

Though the conflict in Northern Ireland dates back centuries, the groundwork for the Troubles was laid in 1921-22 with a treaty that partitioned the island of Ireland into the six counties of Northern Ireland and the 26 counties of the Irish Free State. 

Irish nationalists were themselves riven by civil war after the treaty and the partitioning, though the 26 counties later became fully independent in the late 1940s as the Republic of Ireland.

In Northern Ireland, differences between nationalists who backed a unified Ireland and unionists who supported the United Kingdom split strongly along religious lines, and Protestants tended to occupy a place of social and economic privilege. 

In the 1960s, Catholics began to push for civil rights, voting rights, police reform, and an end to discrimination. Tensions turned violent in 1968, after civil rights demonstrators faced violent opposition from their opponents and police inaction.

The subsequent period known as The Troubles featured riots, violent attacks, bombings and retaliation from Protestant and Catholic paramilitary groups, as well as involvement from the Royal Ulster Constabulary police, intervention from the British military, and mass internment of civilians.

The Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998 largely brokered peace on the island, but significant tensions over past crimes remain. 

New unrest in Northern Ireland began in late March of this year, taking the form mainly of young people throwing bricks, fireworks, and other projectiles at police. 

According to the BBC, that unrest largely erupted as a result of police in March choosing not to prosecute members of the left-leaning Sinn Fein party for violating coronavirus restrictions last year, as well as continued tensions over a new sea border between Northern Ireland and Ireland imposed as a result of Brexit. 

In May this year, a new inquiry ruled that a Catholic priest, a mother of eight, and at least seven other civilians were wrongly killed by British soldiers in Northern Ireland in a three-day 1971 incident known as the Ballymurphy Massacre. The official finding places the incident as a possible forerunner to Bloody Sunday, another massacre of Catholic demonstrators by British paratroopers.


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Irish diocese delays First Communions until autumn over Covid concerns

March 25, 2021 CNA Daily News 0

Derry, Northern Ireland, Mar 25, 2021 / 06:01 pm (CNA).- The Diocese of Derry has announced that First Communions, customarily held in spring, will be postponed so as to discourage associated parties and other social gatherings.

The Derry diocese, whose see is in Northern Ireland but which extends into the Republic Ireland, has announced that the sacrament will be delayed until September.

Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry said that while parties have no strict correlation to the sacrament, First Communion is often followed by celebratory gatherings.

“I am concerned about the parties and other socialising which, although completely disconnected from the celebration of the sacraments and the environs of the church, can and often do occur,” he wrote in a letter to his presbyterate.

“It must also be recognised that such parties and socialising are a matter for the civil authorities and, indeed, are currently banned under civil COVID regulations; it is for the civil authorities to enforce civil laws,” he said.

He said the decision has come after much deliberation, and he emphasized the Church’s role in providing protection for people.

The Church should “go the extra step to assist in protecting public health by avoiding those situations which might with some regularity lead people to organise parties,” he said.

“I do not take this decision lightly, but I am conscious that we must do everything we can to ensure that life is protected in the midst of this pandemic, noting that there has been some upturn in case numbers locally in recent days,” he said.

The bishop said it will be acceptable for parishes to make provisional arrangements for Confirmations in June. He said he would review and confirm this decision in May.

Bishop McKeown said return to normalcy “will be slow and, in order to hold the progress that we have made towards normal practice of faith, patience will be needed in relation to the pace of such change.”

In Northern Irish portion of the Derry diocese, public worship is due to resume March 26. The Republic of Ireland has yet to permit public worship.


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UK government may push to legislate again on abortion in N Ireland

March 20, 2021 CNA Daily News 0

Belfast, Northern Ireland, Mar 20, 2021 / 01:01 pm (CNA).- The British government may push to legislate further on the provision of abortion in Northern Ireland, as it holds that the region’s devolved government has not fully implemented regulations imposed by Westminster.

“We remain disappointed that the Department of Health and Northern Ireland executive have failed to commission full abortion services, following the change to the law last March,” a British government spokesperson said, according to the Press Association.

“We are continuing to monitor the situation closely, including considering further legislative action at Westminster, given the nature of the legal duties on the secretary of state for Northern Ireland in this context.”

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, but abortion law is considered a devolved issue to be under the control of the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, due to the suspension of the  regional government, the British parliament in October 2019 decriminalized abortion in Northern Ireland and obliged the UK government to create legal access to abortion in the region.

The regulations from Westminster, which came into force March 31, 2020, allow elective abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy; abortions up to 24 weeks in cases of risk to the mother’s physical or mental health; and abortion without time limit in cases of severe fetal impairment or fatal fetal abnormality.

Abortions may be performed at General Practitioners premises, and Health and Social Care clinics and hospitals. Medical abortions are permitted up to 10 weeks, and the first medication, mifepristone, must be taken at a clinic.

The Guardian reported a source in the British government as saying the Northern Ireland Executive “has not commissioned abortion services consistent with the regulations originally set out by the UK government nearly a year ago.”

Between March 31 and Oct. 14, 719 abortions were procured in Northern Ireland.

According to the Press Association, medical abortions have been arranged at individual health trusts, but the Department of Health has not commissioned abortion provision across the region.

Brandon Lewis, the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is “reportedly prompted by concerns many women are still travelling to Great Britain” to procure abortion, the Press Association wrote.

Northern Irish women have been able to procure free National Health Service abortions in England, Scotland, and Wales since November 2017.

The Guardian reported that “more than 100 women have still sought abortions in England from Northern Ireland.”

Throughout 2019, 1,014 Northern Ireland women are known to have traveled to England or Wales for an abortion, and fewer than 10 traveled to Scotland for an abortion, according to the U.K. Department of Social Care and Scotland’s Information Services.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has filed a judicial review in the region’s High Court over what it maintains is a lack of commission and funding for abortion. The human rights group cites Lewis, the Northern Ireland Executive, and the Northern Ireland Department of Health in its complaint.

Lewis seeks to have the British parliament allow him to direct the Northern Ireland health department to commission more widespread abortion provision.

The health department holds that it needs the agreement of the regional government in order to act.

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster, who is also leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s leader in Westminster, met with Lewis about his plans March 18.

Donaldson recalled that “abortion is a devolved matter,” adding that “any move by an NIO minister to legislate over the head of the Northern Ireland Executive would raise serious questions about when and in what areas the government can make interventions in a devolved administration. The DUP would warn the Northern Ireland Office against legislating on a matter which is wholly devolved and we will vigorously oppose such steps.”

The Northern Ireland Assembly is a power-sharing legislature dominated by the DUP and Sinn Féin.

The Irish nationalist party has said it will call on the health department to make full provision for abortion.

The Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill, introduced by a DUP Member of the Legislative Assembly, passed its second reading in the Assembly March 15, by a vote of 48 to 12. The bill would remove severe fetal impairment as a ground for abortion.

Sinn Féin MLAs abstained from the vote, while MLAs from the Social Democrat and Labour Party, the Ulster Unionist Party, and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland were allowed a conscience vote.

Disability rights campaigners — including the group Don’t Screen Us Out and Heidi Crowter, an Irish woman with Down syndrome — have welcomed the bill, calling the current law “downright discrimination” toward persons with disabilities.

Before March 31, 2020, abortion was legally permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother’s life was at risk or if there was risk of long term or permanent, serious damage to her mental or physical health.

Northern Ireland rejected the Abortion Act 1967, which legalized abortion in England, Wales, and Scotland; and bills to legalize abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, or incest failed in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016.

In June 2020 the British Minister of State for Northern Ireland, Lewis’ deputy, said that while abortion regulation is a devolved issue, any local changes to Northern Ireland’s abortion law would have to comply with human rights conventions.

The Northern Ireland Assembly had shortly before passed a non-binding motion rejecting the imposition of the abortion regulations by the Westminster parliament.

The amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 obliging the government to provide for legal abortion in Northern Ireland was introduced by Stella Creasy, a Labour MP who represents a London constituency.


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On St Patrick’s Day, Ireland’s religious leaders stress progress and continued engagement

March 17, 2021 CNA Daily News 0

CNA Staff, Mar 17, 2021 / 05:36 pm (CNA).- Christianity can shed light on the path forward for the peace process in Ireland, religious and political coexistence, and understanding the shared the history of Ireland’s peoples, religious leaders of major religious groups said in a joint St. Patrick’s Day message as major centenaries approach in 2021.
“Christ’s teaching, ministry and sacrifice were offered in the context of a society that was politically divided, wounded by conflict and injustice. His call to ‘render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things of God’ conveyed the reassurance that beneath these societal fractures lay a deeper source of connection because all things belong to God,” said the March 17 statement “In Christ We Journey Together.”
“Jesus lived out this message of hope by repeatedly and intentionally crossing social boundaries to affirm the dignity of those who had been marginalized or excluded by his own people and by society,” the message continued. They cited gospel stories like Christ’s encounter with the woman of Samaria, saying, “Christ does not seek to minimize differences, but rather to establish connection through gracious listening, replacing exclusion and shame with the hope of new beginnings.”
Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh was a signer of the statement, as was his Church of Ireland counterpart, John McDowell. Other signers were Dr. David Bruce, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland; Dr. Thomas McKnight, President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, and Dr. Ivan Patterson, President of the Irish Council of Churches.
The signers also filmed readings of the statement in a video message at St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh, the historic center of Irish Christianity.
“In our approach to the past we have a moral responsibility to acknowledge the corrosive impact of violence and words that can lead to violence, and a duty of care to those still living with the trauma of its aftermath,” the statement said.
The year 2021 will mark the centenary of the close of the Irish War of Independence and the Truce of July 11 which halted the war. This is followed by the Dec. 6 anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which led to the partition of Ireland into the predominantly nationalist and Catholic Irish Free State, and the predominantly pro-United Kingdom and Protestant Northern Ireland.
Disputes over the treaty among nationalists led to the Irish Civil War, while Catholics in Northern Ireland would suffer discrimination and political and economic exclusion that helped to fuel further discord. A period of civil strife, reprisals, and terrorism known as The Troubles began in the late 1960s and largely closed with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
However, the departure of the U.K. from the European Union called “Brexit” has caused continued uncertainty and fears that the political border will again be a source of difficulty. There have been occasional violent paramilitary actions driven in part by renewed sectarian or political tensions.
In such a situation, the Christian leaders called for wisdom.
“Every generation of leaders, civil and political, is called to make choices about the structures that govern our life in community, now and in the future, in circumstances that will always be less than ideal,” they said. Significant anniversaries are a chance to reflect and re-examine “the contrasting and intertwined narratives of conflict and compromise that surround these pivotal points in our history.”
“We find inspiration and encouragement in the progress that has been made through our peace process in building relationships of mutual respect and trust across these islands,” they continued. “These relationships are often tested, and will at times be found wanting, but our communities have also demonstrated great resilience, solidarity and compassion, evident most recently in the response to Covid–19.”
“Some may struggle with the concept of a shared history when it comes to the centenary of the partition of Ireland, the establishment of Northern Ireland and the resulting reconfiguration of British–Irish relationships,” they added. “What is undeniable, however, is the reality that we have to live in a shared space on these islands, and to make them a place of belonging and welcome for all.”
The ecclesial leaders praised “considerable progress” in “addressing unjust structures that excluded people and unfairly limited their life chances.”
“The power of institutions has diminished, leading to greater accountability for those in leadership. This helps create an environment where we can value our different identities in a pluralist public square, conscious of both our rights and responsibilities. Yet there is much work still to do,” they said.
They warned against the temptation to retreat into online spaces or other areas where “our definition of community is limited to those who agree with us.” Doing so, they said, “leads to an increasingly fragmented society in which too many people fall through the cracks.”
They said there is a need “to be intentional in creating the spaces for encounter with those who are different from us, and those who may feel marginalized in the narratives that have shaped our community identity.”
“This will require us to face difficult truths about failings in our own leadership in the work of peace and reconciliation,” the leaders said. “As Christian churches we acknowledge and lament the times that we failed to bring to a fearful and divided society that message of the deeper connection that binds us, despite our different identities, as children of God, made in His image and likeness. We have often been captive churches; not captive to the Word of God, but to the idols of state and nation.”
That said, they added that Christian communities can contribute to society.
“Churches, alongside other civic leaders, have a role to play in providing spaces outside political structures that give expression to our inter–connectedness and shared concern for the common good,” they added. “It is our hope that shared reflection on our past will support and strengthen this engagement, inspiring us to renew our commitment to the work of building peace for the future.”