A delegation from the Irish Council of Churches made a study visit to the EU institutions from 28–30 November 2017. The visit included meetings with officials from the European Commission, Members of the European Parliament, the Northern Ireland Executive Office, representatives of the Task Force on Article 50 negotiations with the UK, and the Irish Permanent Representation. The visit was organised and facilitated by the EU Commission office in Belfast.
Speaking at the conclusion of the visit ICC President Bishop John McDowell said:
“Following meetings with MEPs and EU officials in both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland, the Irish Council of Churches was encouraged to make a visit to the EU institutions to explore issues that are of particular concern to our member churches in an EU context. Under Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty the European Union made a commitment to “an open, transparent and regular dialogue” with churches and non–confessional organisations. This provides a valuable opportunity for faith communities to share concerns with policy makers, and outline the values they believe should shape and inform policy decisions at EU level.
Our agenda for the visit was wide–ranging, shaped by the many different forms of social outreach being undertaken by our member churches across the island of Ireland. We were keen to learn more about efforts to ensure that the most vulnerable members of society are protected through initiatives such as the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the Social Pillar and the work of the Rights of the Child unit. In the wider global context we discussed the efforts of the EU to promote freedom of religion and belief through its External Action Service and the responsibility of member states to ensure refugees are protected in accordance with the Geneva Convention.
We were acutely conscious that our visit was taking place during a critical phase in the Article 50 negotiation process. We were encouraged by the level of interest in, and awareness of, the unique needs and circumstances of Northern Ireland. Those involved in the negotiations from the different EU institutions have clearly devoted considerable time to the study of these questions, and that concern was greatly appreciated by our delegation. What we heard underlined the considerable investment made by the EU in the Peace Process. Not only has there been a significant financial investment through the creation of a unique peace funding model for Northern Ireland, but great attention has been devoted to creating the context in which new relationships can develop, bringing communities together.
We should not allow these achievements to be undermined by the current political challenges, notwithstanding the complexity of the issues currently being negotiated. Our local church communities have experienced first hand the effort that has been required build new relationships of trust in a post–conflict society. Considerable care must be taken to avoid language that threatens to weaken social cohesion and exacerbate divisions. Regardless of our political allegiances and national identity, we can all acknowledge that the protection of peace and stability in Northern Ireland is in the best interests of the UK, Ireland and the rest of the European Union.”
The Irish Council of Churches would like to thank Ms Colette Fitzgerald and her team in the EU Commission Office in Belfast, Ms Isabelle Van Keirsbilick and her team in DG Communication, Vice–President Mairead McGuinness and her staff in the European Parliament, and all those who shared their time and expertise with our delegation.