From Crisis to Hope: Can Churches Contribute to Northern Ireland’s Election Debate?

‘From Crisis to Hope: Working to Achieve the Common Good.’ That’s the title of a recently-published document from the Council for Justice and Peace of the Irish Episcopal Conference. It was the focus of discussion this morning at the Forthspring community centre/Springfield Road Methodist Church. Hosted by the Northern Ireland Catholic Council on Social Affairs, the event was billed as ‘a discussion on the common good ahead of elections in Northern Ireland.’

Chaired by Eamonn Mallie, panellists included Noël Treanor, Bishop of Down and Connor and Chair of the Commission for Social and International Affairs of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference; Wesley Blair, Chair of the Council of Social Responsibility of the Methodist Church in Ireland; Jan Melia, Forthspring Inter-Community Group; Sandra Moore, Director of Homelessness Services at the Welcome Organisation, Belfast; Deirdre O’Rawe, Regional Director, ACCORD Northern Ireland; and Rev Bill Shaw, Director, The 174 Trust.

The document attempts to introduce the concept of the ‘common good’ into public discourse. Its intended audience is people north and south of the border, so it makes reference to the economic crisis in both jurisdictions.

But today’s discussion focused was focused on Northern Ireland, and moving beyond our historically divided politics to find ways to address together issues of the common good, such as child poverty, civic participation, education, cohesive communities, and good relations.

The discussion included some impressive statements, such as Traenor’s pledge that the ‘Catholic Church and community’ should respond constructively to educational disadvantage among the Protestant working class. He said:

The recent Report (March 2011) by Dawn Purvis MLA and her Working Group on Educational Disadvantage and the Protestant Working Class entitled A Call to Action was a clarion call for every citizen in Northern Ireland. I want to say this morning, located as we are the interface between the Shankhill Road and the Springfield Road, that the leaders of the Catholic Church and community also hear that call and have a duty to respond to it.

I am curious about what a Catholic, or rather a combined Catholic-Protestant church response to the issues flagged in Purvis’ report, might look like.

Blair described as ‘iniquitous’ the extortionate rate of interest on personal loans, the rise in university fees, and the recent decision not to fund a cancer unit at Altnagelvin. He said that priests and ministers in Derry would soon be presiding over the early funerals of cancer victims and asked, ‘is this the kind of society we want?’

But how to move to a different kind of society?

Blair challenged those present to find out which parties or politicians can articulate positions that would alleviate child poverty, improve educational opportunities, and prioritise social justice over bank bailouts and military spending. As Shaw put it:

We are told the cupboard is bare, but we find the money to go to war. We need to call politicians to account and start a real war against poverty.

Panellists and those in the audience were also well-aware that the voice of the churches no longer carries the influence that it once did. Others, even those who work for church or community-based organisations, pointed out that they were minorities within their church institutions.

They might care deeply about child poverty or better community relations, but it is difficult getting others in the churches to devote their energies to it. As one member of the audience said, the churches are too preoccupied with protecting their own institutions rather than looking after the poor in society – and this didn’t seem to fit with the gospel of Jesus.

Another member of the audience, who is part of the church-based social justice group at Stormont, spoke of his frustration that the group is ‘struggling because churches are not making it a priority.’ He said that the group had actually been started at the instigation of politicians, who were concerned that they were not being challenged by the churches. The politicians wanted to engage more regularly with the churches on social justice issues.

This raised questions about whether those in the room – churches, organisations or individuals – actually had any power to influence public debate, politicians or policy decisions. And for those who felt alienated or powerless, especially among the young, how could they be inspired to get involved?

Mallie, who wandered about during the discussion time posing pointed questions to unsuspecting members of the audience, at one stage turned to a young woman and wanted to know her thoughts on the impact people could have on politics in Northern Ireland.

Rawan Arar, a visiting research assistant at Trinity College Dublin at Belfast, said that she had only arrived in the country two days ago. But she thought that the people whose contributions she had heard so far seemed dedicated to ‘service.’ When she emphasised that it is important to instil a sense of service in people, Mallie asked where that came from in her – was it religious conviction?

Arar explained that she is American and Muslim, the daughter of Palestinian refugees, and her family’s experiences had instilled in her the importance of prioritising service to others.

Traenor returned to Arar’s remarks as the discussion closed, saying that ‘politics should not be about control, it should be about service.’ Blair said that people in the churches and other concerned citizens might not have power in the sense of control, but they have opportunities for engagement.

There will be further discussion about these issues on the next Sunday Sequence.


  • pippakin

    Can Churches contribute to the norths election debate? NO.

  • I have to agree ….a resounding NO.
    As to the specifics of Education raised by Bishop Treanor. I am reminded of the remarks of Dr Norman Hamilton that there is no such thing as “value free education”
    So de facto in the State system the Protestant churches have a degree of influence.
    Obviously in their own system, the Catholic Church has a degree of influence.
    But all religions have an interest in defending their own positions which means mutual support.
    Of course its the credo of liberal dissidents and many others that the systems should be more integrated (or “shared”) but once again in less than a month, the will of real people will prevail.

  • The Word

    I note Noel Traynor’s article in today’s Irish News. It seems we’re getting there.

    But nothing will be completely right until we address the triumvirate of grievance in this conflict situation:- the failure of faith that led to the Plantation of Ulster, the failure of faith that led to the Partition of Ireland, and the failure of faith that led to the IRA campaign.

    We need to identify why there was a failure of faith in these instances and ask if we were sending out signals to people by allowing them to be in our presence.

    Why did God’s message fail to impress these people. Who was providing the alternative view?

    Honestly answered, these questions provide a return to ways of Our Lord.


  • pippakin

    The Word

    Save it for the pulpit. Religion has no place in politics or education or, thinking about it, the real world.

  • Nunoftheabove

    Thew Word

    “Why did God’s message fail to impress these people”

    Because they have more sense than to believe in any such childish nonsense and that even if it was true they would have enough sense to realise that the message would itself still be objectionable balls ? Yeah, I think that’s pretty much the reason.

  • The Word


    That’s just silly. You must understand that the New Testament is an expression of Happiness. Happiness is needed everywhere.


    ditto. You’re very crude.

  • pippakin

    The Word

    I can never make my mind up. Is it possible to be so incredibly, ahem wrong. or are you just taking the michael out of everyone. Its a toughie.

  • Big Maggie

    The Word,

    “You must understand that the New Testament is an expression of Happiness.”

    Er, have you dipped into the Book of Revelation lately? 🙂

  • Driftwood

    Churches have no purpose in the body politic any more than asrologers or homeopaths or fortune tellers. They are literally dying off, as is their medieval ‘philosophy’.
    The best thing they could do before they fade into history is state that Evolution is fact. And the present Universe is 14 billion earth years old. Then apologise for all the feudal guff they have been preaching for centuries keeping the poor in their place.
    Some nice music over the years though.
    Goodnight and thanks for all the fish.

  • Mark McGregor

    Out of interest, when Mallie ‘wandered about’ giving ‘pointed questions to unsuspecting members of the audience’.

    Did he just happen to accidentally find ‘Rawan Arar,an American and Muslim, the daughter of Palestinian refugees’

    Or did he target someone that looked a bit brown/different?

    Surely not a set up??

  • pippakin

    Mark McGregor

    Almost certainly.

  • Greenflag

    ‘Can Churches Contribute to Northern Ireland’s Election Debate?’

    No. Best to keep out . I suggest they follow the gospel of Jesus and render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s i.e pay taxes on their revenues , donations and profits like any other business . Thats probably the best way they can contribute ..

  • Nunoftheabove

    The Word

    Crudity would be the least of my worries if I was a christian, brethren. Would you care to comment on the catholic church’s masses in Zagreb last night for ‘benefit’ of the just multiply convicted war criminal the catholic church helped shelter while evading international justice ? Naturally your guys can’t ‘lose’ the argument per se; if he’d beaten the rap it’s a nod of approval from the almighty for his raping of the Krajina, if on the other hand and as we’ve seen he takes the hit and goes down he’ll be regarded as a martyr and sure it’s god’s will and sure isn’t he as a good catholic born to suffer anyway and sure he’ll get his reward ‘up thonder’ after he stops breathing (again, presumably as and precisely when god wills it) for unspeakable crimes against ‘rival’ christians ?

    Quare stuff this christianity. Such notable company its clerics keep, such loyalty to the causes it supports. That’s way beyond the other side of crudity, padre.

  • between the bridges

    Who in their right mind would mix Religion and politics..

  • The Word


    “It’s a toughie.”

    I am absolutely serious. You wouldn’t believe just who would feel threatened by that pursuit of happiness. Well, you might, given your background in Labour. It’s all the usual suspects including those who sought to maximise unhappiness to change the rules, those who exploited unhappiness to control those who wished to maximise unhappiness to change the rules. That about sums them up, the users and the used. You would think that the used would come to their senses but that would mean admitting that they were wrong to let themselves be used.

    So, you see, someone has to be absolutely serious.

  • pippakin

    The Word

    You left out the biggest ‘user’ of all: religion. Spare me the endless justifications, there are none I haven’t heard.

    If people want to worship that is their choice, they should not be able to force their choice on young children, the electorate or anyone who does not believe. Most importantly religion should not be able to impose itself on the law or above it.

  • The Word


    You can start talking when you cheer up some of your leaders. The SDLP is not about blaming others.

  • HeinzGuderian

    NO !

  • abucs

    Hi The Word,

    the wider point you raise about conflict being a failure of the Christian view to prevail, whether among Christians or non Christians is a good one.

    I think the (fairly) recent case of the Gulf Wars and the Pope’s strong condemnation of what was then only ‘a likelihood’ of war is interesting.

    Again, the Pope’s call for a end to fighting in Libya when the NATO seemed to be intent on backing the rebels to push further for their own NATO policitical goals is another example.

    Such wars, often have no visible structure of protest these days for the very reason that those in the media push hard for religion to be out of spotlight. How many times do we have to go through these mistakes now before they change their minds?

    Many countries around the world of course have not been affected by such ridiculous, arrogant and ultimately self defeating beliefs regarding silencing religion. There are strong moves in the United Nations now to give religions a voice, as they surely have a right to participate in a truely global and pluralistic world. They can’t do any worse than the politicians who seem to fail each time there is a conflict in the world and take the West (against Christian protests) into one dirty war after another.

  • ThomasMourne

    The Churches in N. Ireland have a major contribution to make to the ‘common good’.

    That is to help end sectarianism.

    Which means dismantling themselves.

  • They are not going to influence the debate on any of the caring issues if they decide to lecture elected politicians about how they should spend money. If they want to make a contribution on those matters, they need to come up with original ideas and stay away from arguments about money.

    Further to what ThomasMourne has just said, the Churches wont have any influence if it they are about to dismantle themselves but I totally agree that sectariansim is one area where the Churches have the potential to make a positive impact on this problem.

  • Driftwood

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  • Driftwood

    Throw off the past mythologies, probably asking too much.

  • Driftwood

    Just weird that a backward country, like the Irish Republic has been asked, rather than a progressive one like the UK.
    Maybe that’s the point.

  • Thanks for letting everybody know that Driftwood. I am an atheist but I find organised atheism rather surplus to life’s requirements.

    I get the impression that organised atheism has, as part of its agenda, a desire to confront believers. That came across loud and clear when various humanist societies made very strong criticisms of the Catholic church at the time of the Pope’s visit to Britain.

    The only time I am likely to clash with religion is when religion is used to advance a political agenda. However, I would not spend my time knocking religion, let alone trying to persuade believers that they are ignorant. If a belief system is harmless, I say let it be.

  • Student of the World

    In a past discussion I brought up the curiosity

    “it seems that religious leaders ought to take advantage of an instance such as this. I have repeatedly read about congregations that take some stance, but rarely the priests or pastors. The US civil rights movement, though different in many ways from your own, gained both momentum and legitimacy from the active participation of religious leaders.
    It seems that this entire Conflict Resolution movement is taking place without the assistance or consent of the religious leaders that ought to be at the forefront of peace dialogues.”

    While I too believe that religion should stay out of the electoral process, I think that their moment of truth will occur in the days that follow the election. When the microcosm that is N. Ireland finds itself dealing with the implications of the election, people will look to their spiritual leaders for answers. It is up to those leaders to set an example, put down their books, and reach out to those on the other side. The coming months could either be a shining moment for the churches of N. Ireland, or an affirmation of the corruption and hate that they have fueled over the past centuries.

  • Greenflag

    Seymour Major,

    ‘If a belief system is harmless, I say let it be.’

    Most ‘atheists’ or ‘agnostics’ would tend to agree . But who decides harmless? and that IF posits a decider . Is the decider an ‘individual’ , a society , a party in political power, a monarch who happens to be head of a church, or ‘another religion ?

    Freedom of religion and to worship one’s chosen God should be universal rights . There are still countries around the world where such freedom is denied . Think Saudi Arabia as just one example .And yet they take their seat at the UN ? Then there are those who would ‘impose ‘ their religion on others at the point of a sword .

    Kudos to Driftwood for ‘enlightening’ those who may be unaware that there are even ‘atheists’ in the Irish Senate . Now are there any confirmed or outed ‘atheists ‘ in the NI ‘Progressive Assembly ‘ and if not why not ? I believe there may be one self declared ‘atheist’ in the US House of Representatives .

  • abucs

    I think what what was more worrying was that the Soviet Union and China had positions as 2 of the 5 permanent members of the Security Council and a veto when at the same time they had the blood on their hands of the cold blooded murder, starving and exiling of hundreds of millions of their own people in the name of getting rid of religion including hundreds of thousands of priests .

    I think it is clearly seen in history, whether it be in China, Russia, Romania, Yugoslavia etc etc or Hitlers Nazi’s or even back to aspects of the Reformation – if one group wants to limit and control religion through the secular state it is the worst of evils which we have ever encountered in our shared human history.

    While the above group of atheist speakers in Dublin are a motely bunch of bitter religion-hating incompetants who are likely to never belong to anything above their own personal belief systems – their nastiness and arrogant claims on the lives of others clearly resonates with the political monsters named above who sought to use the state to take over or destroy established religion.

    Such incompetants while faintly amusing can be very dangerous should their nastiness catch on and society actually starts to take them seriously.

  • Greenflag


    ‘While the above group of atheist speakers in Dublin are a motely bunch of bitter religion-hating incompetents’

    Incompetent ? As compared to the RC Church Hierarchy? the Board of the Presbyterian Mutual Society? the Ulster Unionist Party ? Fianna Fail ? the new ‘dissidents ‘ ? the Orange Order? the bank fearing elected governments of the USA , UK , Ireland ? the ECB ? the IMF ?

    It’s of course purely a coincidence that the ‘western country’ with the worlds highest percentage of atheists and the lowest number of believers in a God should also come first in the world rankings for least crime -lowest murder rate -greatest trust in politicians -highest educational standards -lowest infant mortality – and have avoided war for the past 350 years.
    While very few of them believe that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Saviour and will squeeze them through the pearly gates they seem to practice the tenets of Christianity – in ways a lot closer to Christ’s teachings than the wackos of Texas born agains or the RC hierarchy ,

    I am of course referring to Sweden -which is looking at 4.5 % economic growth this year along with reducing taxes and increasing some areas of expenditure in their so called ‘welfare’ state which has more people in employment than in those prime examples of corporate oligarchic license such as the USA and UK among others .

    The late Horseman’s call to Swedenise -Ireland /NI is one which should resonate in this day and age when we see our local God fearing politicians being even more terrified of the banking sector .Perhaps they’ve forgotten JC’s rebuking and casting out of the Pharisee’s from the Temple ?

  • abucs

    Yes Greenflag they are definately incompetant with regards to building society and structures which do good in the world. Even atheists are embarressed by many of them.

    You talk about Sweden where 23% of the population do not believe in the spiritual dimension and this minority has jumped in recent years. You cannot seriouslyclaim that because of a jump to 23% of people not believing in a spiritual dimension in 2005, somehow has helped Sweden stay out of war for 350 years?

    regarding war

    How about looking at some of Swedens neighbours that introduced atheism as a way of life and where the number of atheists were (are) much higher than 23%. What is their record like? These are the ones who had advocated forcing religion from the public square. These are the countries who forced religion out of schools. Thse are the ones that made it illegal to raise your child Christian. These are the ones who made the same sounds as the current bunch of incompetants listed above.

    And again i repeat the obvious. The greatest evil in the last 500 years was where people tried to use the state to suppress or take over religion. Many people today think they are somehow enlightened and progressive when they are in fact simply repeating the same rhetoric and mistakes which have caused so much evil in the world.

    They may be incompetantand disjointed (thank God) but they are dangerous to civil society should people start to take them seriously.