Policy & Advocacy
Update on Northern Ireland, February 2000
The Peace Process
Once again, the peace process is at a critical juncture, this time over the neuralgic issue of decommissioning (the requirement in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that paramilitary groups give up their weapons by May 22, 2000). Last December, after a year and a half of missed opportunities, Senator George Mitchell played a decisive role in bringing the major NI parties to agree on a complicated formula that finally broke the impasse on implementing the Good Friday agreement and permitted the formation of a NI government and other measures called for under the agreement. Regrettably, the new NI assembly functioned for only two months before it was suspended by the British government in order to avoid the resignation of the Unionist head of the Assembly, David Trimble, over the lack of progress in IRA decommissioning. Politically isolated on the issue, the IRA, which says decommissioning is an effort of the other side to gain a "military victory," pulled out of talks with the international body handling decommissioning and Sinn Fein announced it would not continue to negotiate on these issues.
While there are differences over the Unionist threat to resign over the decommissioning issue and the British government's decision to suspend the Assembly, there is a consensus among political (except Sinn Fein) and religious leaders in NI that more progress on decommissioning is necessary. In a last-minute effort to break the impasse, Catholic Bishop Seamus Hegarty of Derry went so far as to offer to act as a "guarantor and supervisor" of paramilitary weapons with the understanding that they would be put beyond use under the auspices of the decommissioning commission. The offer was summarily rejected by the IRA.
The USCC is deeply involved in educating Americans about the complexities of the NI situation; advocating for justice, human rights and peace; deepening bonds of solidarity with the people of NI; and working ecumenically to dispel notions that this is a religious conflict and to help bridge the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland.
Working closely with the Irish Bishops and Protestant leaders in Northern Ireland, the USCC has joined with the Presbyterian Church, USA, in welcoming the December agreement to implement all aspects of the Good Friday agreement in full. Despite the delay in carrying out its terms, the Good Friday Agreement remains the best hope in a generation of resolving thirty years of conflict and of building a more just and peaceful society in Northern Ireland. With Archbishop Sean Brady, president of the Irish Episcopal Conference, the USCC is urging NI's political leaders, as well as those in the Republic of Ireland and in Britain, to find ways to break the current impasse so that they can continue to fulfill all of their remaining responsibilities under the Agreement.
Inter-Church Committee on NI: Representing the Catholic Bishops and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. and NI, activities include:
- Irish Summer Institute: This biennial institute in Ireland and NI provides about 20 Americans an in-depth look at the conflict. The next Institute will be Aug. 21-Sept. 3, 2000. $2500, incl. airfare from NY City. Contact: Rev. Richard Young (724) 265-1381.
- Cross-community development: The churches have helped raise more than $1 million for small business development and service projects.
- Ecumenical Speakers Program: Since 1987, 13 speaking tours have brought Catholic and Protestant clergy together from NI to the United States.
- Business Training Program: In cooperation with the N.I. Training and Employment Agency, some 175 Catholic and Protestant college students, most from disadvantaged backgrounds, are studying for one year at some 90 Presbyterian, Catholic, Methodist, and Episcopal colleges in the United States in 1997-98. Contact: Sr. Lourdes Sheehan, USCC (202-541-3131).
- Ecumenical Sister parish program: Catholic and Presbyterian congregations in the U.S. have twinned with counterparts in NI.
Joint statement of Cardinal Bernard Law and the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, USA, welcoming the December, 1999, agreement to implement the Good Friday agreement.