GA21: Devolution - support & concern

6.10.2021 | Church in Society, Public Affairs


Meeting in Belfast today for its third and final day of business (6 October) the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland expressed its continued support for Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions as the ‘best place for new policy and legislative decisions to be made within Northern Ireland…’ and expressed its ‘grave concern’ at the Secretary of State’s undermining of it.

Members began the day with the Report of the Council for Public Affairs, which is tasked with addressing current topical issues on which the Church seeks to have its voice heard, while developing its thinking on important areas such as education, youth, children’s, social, moral and ethical issues.

In his address to the General Assembly, the Convener of the Council for Public Affairs, Rev Daniel Kane said, “Navigating the fragile political landscape following Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol has been tricky to say the least. The General Assembly has always been supportive of the devolved institutions as being the best form of government for the people of Northern Ireland.

“Indeed our Moderator a couple of weeks described them as being ‘precious.’

I’m sure we would all like to commend those who serve in its chamber. We also deplore all threats, and indeed death threats, made against any elected representative, minister, or public figure.”

The General Assembly also shared the concerns of the Council regarding matters of legacy and dealing with the past, as the UK government has indicated its intention to move away from arrangements for dealing with the past in the Stormont House Agreement.

One key area, is the right of victims and survivors to seek due process and justice in the courts. The Council’s report expressed its ‘deep disquiet at the current proposals’ stating that, ‘whilst the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) was not perfect, it did set out a broader, four-strand framework to address legacy issues. We are on public record stating our support for all four key principles outlined in the SHA, especially the right of victims and survivors to seek due process and justice in the courts. What has been proposed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland denies victims and survivors that possibility.

‘Many victims and survivors come from our own Presbyterian family. For so many innocent people it is impossible to quantify the pain, suffering and generational hurt that they and their families have suffered as a consequence of unwarranted violence visited upon them.’

The report continued, ‘The important Gospel values of healing, love, justice, repentance and hope for the future must continue to guide our thinking…Some victims of violence who have lost loved ones still seek justice, however unlikely such recourse through the courts might be. To remove that from them is to remove hope, and is antithetical to the gospel which unites both love and justice in the person of Jesus Christ. It may be enough for some that the remedy they crave will show on the balance of probabilities, that such and such a one perpetrated this act, even if the prospect of conviction in a criminal court “beyond all reasonable doubt” is now beyond our system of justice to deliver.”

The General Assembly shared the concerns expressed in the report around issues of legacy and dealing with the past and encouraged ‘the Council to engage further on these important issues.’

Education both in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland also featured in the Council’s Report and in speeches from the floor of the House. PCI’s Public Affairs Officer, Karen Jardine said in her speech, “Across both jurisdictions there are emerging and growing challenges to the role of the churches within education. This can be manifested through questions over the place of RE and collective worship or how relationship and sexuality education is taught…

“Recognising these challenges and in light of the Independent Review of Education just commencing in Northern, [PCI’s] State Education Committee plans to hold a conference in early 2022 to reflect on, re-imagine, and re-envision PCI’s role in education. This will not only help to inform our response to the review, but also re-invigorate our thinking to address the educational challenges of the 21st century,” she said.

During the session, the General Assembly, ‘express[ed] sincere appreciation to all those involved in education across the island of Ireland – governors and school managers, principals, teachers, classroom assistants, support staff and parents – for the many ways in which they have responded to the challenges experienced through the Covid-19 pandemic.’

Members also commended ‘the non-denominational Christian ethos of controlled schools as a sound framework for developing the educational, emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing of children and young people.’

Members also encouraged the Council to continue to make submissions and to ‘interact with statutory authorities and related bodies on this island, attempting as far as possible to reflect the views of members in both jurisdictions.’

The General Assembly will conclude this afternoon, Wednesday, 6 October at 5.30pm. Business also took place on Monday and Tuesday evening. For full details visit the General Assembly Overview page here.   As in previous years, throughout the General Assembly there will be a live Twitter feed. You can follow preceedings via @pciassembly hashtag #PCIGA21.

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