Three years after the collapse of the Assembly, we are to see a return to devolved government. Surely this is to be affirmed. Much of the content of the Framework ‘New Decade New Approach’ is to be welcomed. Much remains to be done and many challenges are scattered on the pathway moving forward. Issues of legacy, culture, language, heritage, investment, partnership, economics and community relations are already being discussed as challenges, and concerns are being expressed.
That said, amidst the always complex layers of Northern Ireland, we will have a new executive up and running. As is fit for people of Christian faith, we pray for leaders and ask God to guide them as they address the urgent needs of better wages and systems for the NHS, the education system and the delivery of effective social care.
This agreement is months too late for the unborn. It sidesteps the issue of the introduction of abortion in Northern Ireland and says nothing about the introduction of what is commonly called equal marriage. The issues may well be discussed in working groups, committees and in the local legislature, but the absence of any reference to their imposition on Northern Ireland culture and failure to acknowledge, in this document, the ways in which the very fabric of our democracy has been weakened, and therefore our trust in those who lead us has been undermined, is an indication that our politicians still do not see the depth of damage done to our society by the decisions forced upon us ‘in absentia.’
The returned Assembly has a much deeper challenge to face than the broken systems and structures of Northern Ireland. They must work to win the trust and respect of our society again.
Hard-working MLA’s continued to meet with their constituents through the last three years. They took criticism, ridicule and caricature repeatedly. The oft spoken idea that they weren’t working is not true. They continued their hard work whilst the Assembly was dormant. The chamber was empty, but their inboxes were full, and their offices and surgeries were busy and demanding.
Yet patients who have waited too long, staff in hospitals and schools who have been mistreated, and those who have depended on essential services that have been forced to their knees all share common senses of abandonment, disappointment and frustration. These deeply rooted sentiments will take many years, perhaps even a generation, to address.
More than these disappointments, however, the great challenge our society faces now is that the heart of our culture has been changed. The unborn cannot speak, and the passing of just a few months does not change the political and moral failure that both Westminster and Stormont share responsibility for. The Palace of Westminster rode a coach and horses through devolution and democracy, and many of the political parties in this part of the United Kingdom failed to adequately understand the depth of betrayal and anger felt by the people of Northern Ireland at their inability to halt legislation we did not ask for and were not consulted on. The susequent NIO consultation was ham-fisted at best and deliberately complex, be-fuddled and biased at worst. The new framework could have at least said something about this and made an attempt to articulate, in writing, the need to address the deep fissures of a lack of confidence and sense of broken trust that the trinkets and baubles attached to the Northern Ireland Executive Formation Act of last year have left behind.
Last July, the then NIEF Bill became known as ‘The Christmas Tree Bill’ because of the number of additions it endured. Some of those additions have been picked up in the new framework, but the issues of abortion and equal marriage lie silently hidden. Ignored, overlooked or conveniently unmentioned, these absences leave a deeply embedded scar in our culture. We are a society that is less safe for the unborn. We are a society that is more dangerous for unborn disabled children. We are a society that has bought, and accepted the lie that women’s rights should be pitted against the rights of their children. We have believed that in the name of freedom and liberation and rights, women’s reproductive choices must be medicalised, their ability to bear children must be seen as an aspect of their personhood that endangers their freedoms and the dignity of the children they bear must become subjectified to a rights-based agenda.
These changes will last far longer than a few months or years. They have changed the fabric of NI society. I am grateful that the Church spoke out about these issues prior to the introduction of the NIEF Act, and I a proud that I was part of that movement. Whilst I welcome the joint declaration of the churches about the re-commencement of the Assembly, I am saddened that the rights and needs of women and the unborn have so quickly been lost from the dialogue.
After the introduction of the 1967 Abortion Act in GB, the church somehow lost much of its nerve on the issue. In many ways, churches in GB have allowed abortion and the rights of the unborn to be placed in the footnote of their public policy positions or dropped from their agenda altogether. I pray we do not do the same thing.
We must not forget the unborn.
We must fight for a better society.
We must stand for both women and the children they bear.
The passing of time does not change the moral responsibility of a society. If a healthy and vibrant society is one that protects the vulnerable, then the re-convened Assembly will govern a Northern Ireland that is less healthy and less vibrant. Northern Ireland is less because of the changes of last year. And in the General Election in December 12th, our wider society seems to have shown less concern for the issues of life and abortion than I would have hoped. The two main political parties suffered at the polling booth, no doubt because of a combination of the failure of the Assmebly to re-convene and (for some) the failure to speak out more clearly on the issues of abortion and marriage. But some of the parties that shifted their position on abortion, even if not officially, did well. Our society has embraced, or accepted, some of the decisions around abortion. It pains me to acknowledge that, but I think it is true. There is, however, a vast difference between the reality that NI society is shifting on the issue and the assumption that a free-for-all policy toward terminations is what our society wants. I do not think that is the case.
Nevertheless, our society must live with the consequences of our choices, as must our politicians. Failure to address these issues properly for years is deeply regrettable. Refusal to address them now that the Assembly is to be reconvened will be heartbreaking.
Silence from politicians, or the Church, will be evidence of a society that is walking blindly into a deep crevasse of moral and ethical individualism and reductionism.
I pray that we learn the lessons of Jeremiah, and that we cry out for the lives of our children, who faint from hunger at the head of every street: both inside and outside the womb.