As Co–Chairs of the Irish Inter–Church Meeting, we write to share a summary of the key themes emerging from our work on Brexit at a time when this is a priority concern of our member churches.
The membership of the Irish Inter–Church Meeting (IICM) reflects the contemporary landscape of Irish Christianity across Protestant, Orthodox, Reformed, Catholic, and independent churches and encompasses the vast majority of Christians across the island of Ireland. The IICM is organised on an all–island basis, working in both jurisdictions. This is also the case for our member churches.
The themes of peace, reconciliation and social justice have been at the heart of the work of the inter–church structures in Ireland since their foundation. This work is underpinned by a commitment to respect for diversity within the bonds of a common Christian identity, as expressed in the mission statement ‘Churches in Ireland — Connecting in Christ’. Understandably, Brexit has been a priority area of engagement and concern in recent years. It is one that we have approached with a commitment to navigating diverse identities and divergent political aspirations on the basis of deepening relationships of mutual respect and trust.
In 2017, with the support of the Community Relations Council NI, we undertook an engagement with key stakeholders — including local churches, community and voluntary organisations and the business community — which provided us with a framework for wider consultation with our membership about the impact of Brexit and the possible contribution of the churches. That framework examined issues impacting our members at the level of local communities, British–Irish relations and in the wider international context. Consultation responses underlined the responsibilities of the churches in the care of the most vulnerable — both in terms of social outreach and advocacy, in the promotion of good relations within Northern Ireland and in showing leadership in the work of peace–building and social justice, not just locally but globally.
On the basis of these shared priorities our Brexit working group has engaged with the negotiating parties and other key stakeholders. At this critical stage in the process, the Irish Inter–Church Meeting echoes the recent appeal from the Church Leaders Group (Ireland) for urgency and generosity in the negotiations to end the economic and social uncertainty that is placing such a heavy burden on so many.
Below, we outline some of our priority concerns in each of the key areas.
At local level, churches have a profound pastoral concern about the impact of so much uncertainty, intersecting with the serious economic and social challenges of Covid–19. Our local businesses rely on political leaders to support them as they provide employment and essential services. Any limitations on consumer choice, or increased costs to goods or services, will have the most severe impact on those on low incomes. Community and voluntary organisations, already struggling to adapt to Covid restrictions, in many cases in a context of falling income, are fearful they will be unable to meet any additional increased demand that may arise from Brexit. Political narratives that reduce the complexity of these challenges to a divide between winners and losers damage social cohesion by polarising communities at a time when all need to pull together. Local churches can help support community resilience to the changes to come by using their networks to communicate reliable practical information about any necessary preparations, by proactively intensifying efforts in peace–building and community relations and through solidarity with the most vulnerable in both charitable outreach and advocacy. However, as with other civil society leaders, our capacity to respond in this way is limited by the absence of clear guidance in the midst of continued uncertainty about the future UK/EU relationship.
As the Church Leaders’ Group has stated, our member churches have been encouraged by the commitment to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement expressed by the British and Irish Governments, as well as the EU. That commitment has to be understood in the context of the totality of the relationships within these islands. Protection of the relationships between the UK Parliament and the devolved institutions is an essential foundation for a strong global leadership role for the UK post–Brexit. It is important to note too that any tensions in relationships at this level have a significant impact on political stability in Northern Ireland. Similarly, tensions in British–Irish relations have a rapid destabilising effect on local community relations.
As an all–island institution, whose members are also organised on an all–island basis, there has been particular emphasis in our work on the impact of Brexit on cross–border cooperation, as we are acutely aware of the many complex ways in which people’s lives are inter–connected across the two jurisdictions. A comprehensive agreement will allow for a smooth transition with minimum disruption. In the absence of that level of agreement, the approach will necessarily be fragmented, with increased risk of damage to social cohesion, particularly where there is divergence in rights and entitlements between jurisdictions and/or between British and Irish passport holders. We are particularly concerned about uncertainty in relation to cross–border cooperation on policing and justice, where any policy gaps could have dangerous consequences.
As a society emerging from conflict, and one that is economically heavily dependent on the British and Irish Governments, as well as support and investment from the EU, Northern Ireland has unique vulnerabilities and particular interests that need to be adequately represented in any negotiations that impacts its future. The Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol follows the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement as an international agreement that will have a defining influence on the future of people in Northern Ireland. We are concerned that the level of engagement with civil society and public awareness raising has not adequately reflected the true significance of this framework. We are concerned too that there are gaps in representation at the level of decision–making that could lead to a democratic deficit for the people of Northern Ireland.
Brexit, and the negotiations for the UK’s new relationship with the EU, are taking place in a profoundly uncertain and unsettled global context. There is a significant opportunity for the UK Government and the EU to show leadership, drawing inspiration from the achievements of the Good Friday Agreement. A negotiated framework for post–Brexit relations, underpinned by mutual trust and generosity, would be a significant demonstration of leadership in support of multilateralism and a rules–based international order. These principles are fundamental to global peace and security. Many of the major challenges facing the European continent are global, including our response to climate breakdown, to the displacement of people by violent conflict and other factors, to the risks and opportunities posed by new technologies and to health risks such as a global pandemic. Collaborative leadership, pooling resources and sharing research and intelligence will greatly enhance our capacity to respond.
Most importantly, however, an agreed way forward for Brexit and the UK’s new relationship with the EU, in addition to addressing the major concerns outlined above, would bring a message of hope and solidarity at a time when that is greatly needed.
Bishop Brendan Leahy
Very Rev Dr Ivan Patterson