Equipping Christians for the NI Assembly Elections

The Election is Over – What Do We Do Now?
The Election is Over – What Do We Do Now? avatar

We’ve now had a couple of days to reflect on an election which has seen some changes in the make-up of how Stormont will look in the future. Familiar faces have gone, party allegiance has shifted for many and the outlook for the governance of Northern Ireland is currently uncertain as talks begin to form a new power-sharing executive.

What exactly is our role as Christians in this post-election period? We can find encouragement in the fact that our role as the Church in Northern Ireland is unchanging.

Our role is unchanging because we serve a God who is unchanging. He is unchanging in his sovereignty; ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.’ Unchanging in his love,’ I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness’. Unchanging in his power, ‘It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens.’ Unchanging in his grace, ‘all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.’

In light of our awesome God who is unchanging, he has given us the most joy-inducing role a group of humans have ever been given. Jesus puts it best: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.”

In an election period we can sense a heightened desire to become polarised as we are urged to pick a camp and dig the trenches. Sentiments can become less hospitable, rhetoric is sharpened and there is less willingness turn the other cheek as we are faced with the important task of determining who will govern our country for the next number of years. We are only human, and we are all vulnerable to stray onto paths which lead us away from this core command to love.

What exactly are we to make of this word “love” upon which Jesus places such emphasis? It is easy to relegate the notion of love to a position of lesser importance when put in context of the serious and urgent problems in the world. With global political instability rising, nuclear proliferation on the increase, religious extremism dominating news coverage – the notion of love as a serious tool to combat these issues becomes lost in the need for increased military spending, populism, power grabbing and more.

Where might the priority of love be on the scale of importance for us in Northern Ireland as Christians? Do we love others before anything else? Were we to describe those election candidates who we disagree with on almost every ideological issue in just one sentence, would that sentence be the three simple words “I love them”?

Christians I know are some of the most loving people I have ever met, and I am so grateful for their presence in my life.  I think all of us, however, need to be on guard against anything which would seek to dampen our love. There is a false assertion that can creep into our mindset that we have matured past the notion of love as our first response into more ‘important’ responses given the situation that we are in. This is a lie and must be combated at all costs. There is nothing more important for you or I to do than to love God and love our neighbour. This love will manifest itself in different ways, but it cannot be substituted. We will never outgrow our need to love and there is nothing more important than it. Jesus doesn’t allow room for anything else.

Our love for God will mean that we are loyal to him above everything else, that we will be continually seeking and asking for a deeper joy in his presence through communion with him and worship of him. It will also mean we are passionate about being a witness to our land through our preaching that Jesus Christ has made a way to be saved and that God’s vision for human flourishing is an inherently good way for society to function. This will lead us to be vocal on some undoubtedly controversial and divisive issues in society, but we will do it out of a love for who our father is.

Our love for others will mean that we endeavour to make sure that everyone we encounter will get at least some glimpse of God’s love towards them. We will be faltering in this task, and it may require some extra effort when engaging in the public square with those who we disagree with, but dialogue grounded in an unconditional love is the only way to engage with society around us – there is no other way to have a genuine Christian voice to our society.

So, what is our role in this uncertain time for Northern Ireland? Let’s pro-actively love God and love others, and pray for help to compromise on this command less and less.
Tim Houston, CARE Church & Development Officer

Nola Leach, CARE Chief Executive shares her thoughts on the Assembly Elections
Nola Leach, CARE Chief Executive shares her thoughts on the Assembly Elections avatar

Tomorrow Northern Ireland goes back to the polls. This election is significant for the future of Northern Ireland. Those elected will be entrusted with leading Northern Ireland forward in to the future and determining the directions that will be taken in a whole raft of policy areas.

We at CARE have sought to help Christians in Northern Ireland think through a number of policy areas which a new Assembly may consider. We hope many have found the content on engage17 helpful in thinking through some of the key policy issues for which the Northern Ireland Assembly has responsibility. This new Assembly will have powers in areas such as human trafficking, gambling, abortion, religious liberty, marriage and the end of life along many other issues of major significance. We at CARE strongly believe that Christians should engage with the political process. For us, Christians have a duty to take part in the political process if we truly want to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. We hope that Christians will turn out to vote tomorrow and will vote for the common good of the entire community living in Northern Ireland.

It is not clear at this moment what is likely to happen in the aftermath of the election. A new executive may be formed, perhaps Northern Ireland faces another period of Direct Rule or maybe another option will emerge. Regardless of what the future holds for Northern Ireland we at CARE will continue to work with and support political representatives to make a Christian difference for the sake of the future in Northern Ireland.
The apostle Paul, in 1 Timothy 2:1-4, writes that “I urge you first of all, then, to offer petitions, prayers, requests, and thanksgiving on behalf of all persons, for kings and all those in high places, so that we can lead a quiet and tranquil life of the greatest piety and purity, as is good and proper in the eyes of our saviour God, who wants all people to be saved and come to the perception of truth.”

If we want to seek the prosperity of our province today we need to pray that God would have grace on Northern Ireland and use this election to provide and Assembly and an Executive that will govern wisely and make laws that promote righteousness and restrain evil. (1 Peter 2. 14.)

We also urge you to join with us in praying for every MLA elected to the Assembly tomorrow especially the Party Leaders as they engage in negotiations about forming a new Executive. They face many difficult challenges in the months and years ahead. We pray that God would give wisdom and insight to every single one of our 90 MLAs as they seek to serve the people of Northern Ireland.

Written by Nola Leach, CARE Chief Executive.

A Perspective on the Assembly Elections from Martin Magill
A Perspective on the Assembly Elections from Martin Magill avatar

 “Go and be reconciled” (Matthew 5:24)

I’ve heard it suggested that as a society we should stop using the word “reconciliation”.  The main thrust of this argument seems to be that it is unclear what is meant by reconciliation or that it means different things to different people.

I disagree with that suggestion – the word “reconciliation” is a very important Biblical word.  In Matthew 5:24, Jesus commands his listeners to be reconciled.  I believe it is important that all Christians understand the meaning of this use the word frequently, and most important of all put it into practice.  I heard Dr Norman Hamilton speak at an event during the recent 4 Corners Festival in Belfast (www.4cornersfestival.com).  He made the point that in many churches there are often sermons focusing on reconciliation but mostly on vertical reconciliation which is about how we as people are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ but very seldom in sermons, he suggested, were there any references to horizontal reconciliation which is about how we are reconciled with one another.

As I understand the words of Jesus in this passage of Matthew’s gospel in his famous Sermon on the Mount, I believe he is saying that whenever we recognise we are at fault in a relationship with another person, we need to go and be reconciled with that person or those people before worshipping God.  This biblical imperative, it is a command after all, has huge implications for us as a society in Northern Ireland as we struggle to deal with the legacy of our past.  As we search our souls, many of us will recognise that either collectively or individually we have done wrong, in “thought, word or deed”.  For leaders of churches, there may have been times when we preached a toxic theology in some of our sermons.  As people of faith, it may be through sins of omission, we did not do or did not say what we should have said or done.  For those who engaged in violence we have left an enormous legacy of suffering.  For people in places of power we accepted and perpetuated unjust and discriminatory structures in our society.

As we face into an election, the words of Jesus in the previous verse are also relevant and challenging: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you…”.  This is about self-awareness and not about pointing the finger of blame.  We take responsibility for our faults and then we follow this with action along the lines of:  “Go and be reconciled”.  Simple phrases sincerely meant e.g. “I’m sorry”, “we were wrong”, “we acknowledge we hurt you”, “please forgive me” and if they were received in generosity this would make a significant difference.  If we put into practice these words with the necessary inner dispositions of courage, humility and remorse, then we would not only transform the last few days of this election campaign but also the type of society we shape afterwards.

“Go and be reconciled”.

Written by Fr Martin Magill

Forgiveness & The Future
Forgiveness & The Future avatar

I don’t usually take much interest in political issues. It is a strange one as I know it is important, I have always voted and understand how the Bible encourages me to view my civic duty. Though while I struggle to care about what the news says our politicians are up to, it can still frustrate me. I see the context of our political landscape and I long for more, I long for better, I long for peace, for established, professional and perfect people. However this will never be. It is not just because we sit less than 20 years from the Good Friday Agreement or with serious conflict in our recent past. It instead is because we will not ever get it right. No government will.

Recently, I have been reading through Malachi with a friend and looking at how the leaders have not given God the glorious sacrifices which he was due. Instead they gave diseased animals or unclean bread. It didn’t cost them as much because they had forgotten the true value of God so they didn’t give him what he deserved. They lost the view of their one true love and therefore couldn’t instruct the people how to live. The leaders fell short and they were corrected by Malachi but inevitably needed to be forgiven.

I realise not all our political representatives love God, but regardless they agree to whole heartedly represent the people in the areas for which they stand. They make a promise to do a job which is incredibly difficult, draining, facing opposition and having to work together to achieve for us. So yes, they fail. They make mistakes, they come up short, they say the wrong thing, they get tired, they make a u-turn on policies. They don’t always represent me or you even when we thought they would.

I praise God and thank him for each person willing to consider this impossible job. I want to encourage us all to help them in their role, while we ask them to fulfil their role to the best, we also want to be generous in our forgiveness when that doesn’t happen. As Christians engaging in politics, to be overwhelmingly kind and that our forgiveness allows us to keep engaging. So as we consider our vote, find someone you believe will represent you well but be ready to forgive them and support them to flourish.

Written by Christina Baillie

A Perspective on the Assembly Election & Marriage by Callum Webster, Christian Institute
A Perspective on the Assembly Election & Marriage by Callum Webster, Christian Institute avatar

Five times over the last five years MLAs at Stormont have debated proposals to redefine marriage.  There is considerable pressure from activists and the media to introduce same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.  It is very likely that the issue will be voted on again in the next Assembly term.  MLAs elected on 2nd March may well decide whether or not to redefine marriage in Northern Ireland.

Politicians in England, Scotland and Wales have already introduced same-sex marriage, as has the Republic of Ireland.  However only 21 of the 193 United Nations member states have taken the radical step of redefining marriage.

Christian voters should care about the issue of marriage.  The Lord Jesus Christ teaches that marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman (Matthew 19).  Marriage is a creation ordinance predating both the church and the state.  It is the core of the family unit: society’s most basic building block.  The complementary natures of male and female are integral to the design of marriage.  Children need a father and a mother, but same-sex marriage denies this.

If marriage is redefined the effect on freedom of speech and freedom of conscience will be chilling.  Consider what the Equality Commission has already done to Ashers Baking Company in Belfast.  Christians working in the public sector could face pressure to keep quiet about their beliefs on marriage or risk being dismissed from their jobs.

Redefining marriage changes the meaning of marriage for everyone in society.  Schools would face pressure to promote the new definition to children.  Ofsted inspectors in England have already begun questioning pupils and teachers in Christian and Jewish schools about their views on same-sex marriage.

Advocates of same-sex marriage are recommending books for use in schools that undermine traditional marriage, and call on school children to act out gay weddings[i].  Stonewall has promoted picture books such as King & King in primary schools.  This story is about two princes who fall in love and marry each other.  In England LGBT History Months are now run annually and school pupils there have been taught that Florence Nightingale was a lesbian and that Joan of Arc was a ‘trans’ man.

The McArthur family are not the only people in Northern Ireland who have encountered hostility because of their beliefs about marriage.  In 2013 Nick Williamson, the Christian owner of a printing firm in Portadown, was threatened with legal action after he refused to print a magazine containing homosexual images.  If marriage is redefined in Northern Ireland then many more supporters of traditional marriage may face similar problems.

Evidence shows that redefining marriage actually undermines support for marriage in wider society.  In the Netherlands there has been a significant fall in the marriage rate since marriage was redefined in 2001[ii].

Christians should find out the views of candidates in their constituency on same-sex marriage.  If the candidates are elected they may well be deciding whether or not to redefine marriage in Northern Ireland.  Following the elections last year a number of MLAs announced their intention to table Private Members Bills to introduce marriage at Stormont.

[i] Stonewall Education Guides, Including different families, Stonewall, pages 11-13

[ii] Duncan, William C, ‘The Tenth Anniversary of Dutch Same-Sex Marriage: How Is Marriage Doing in the Netherlands?’, iMAPP Research Brief, Vol.4, No.3, 2011; Marriages and Partnership registrations: Key Statistics, CBSStatLine, 2012, see http://tinyurl.com/colyp2o

Written by Callum Webster, Christian Institute.

Workers Party – Where They Stand on our Issues
Workers Party – Where They Stand on our Issues avatar

The Workers Party released their manifesto for the Assembly Election.

The full Manifesto is available to read here, but below are a few extracts that relate to subjects covered on the Engage 17 Website can be found below:

Abortion

“We recognise that women have the right to control their own bodies, including their fertility, and to pursue all reproductive choices. We support a full programme of secular sex education for schools, free access to contraception, proper health and social care for pregnant women, the provision of appropriate, free and quality child care facilities and adequate support for single and low income parents. We believe in a woman’s right to choose and support the provision of free and safe abortion in her own country which will include practical facilities to support women seeking an abortion and quality post abortion care. The next Assembly should recognise a woman’s right to choose and secure the extension of the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland. No one should vote for a candidate or a party that does not trust women.” (p4)


Marriage

“The Assembly’s refusal to keep pace with the rest of the UK and Ireland has seen a repeated refusal to legislate for marriage equality despite the overwhelming support of the people of Northern Ireland.” (p3)

SDLP Manifesto – Where Do They Stand on our Issues
SDLP Manifesto – Where Do They Stand on our Issues avatar

Today the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) launched its manifesto.

The full Manifesto is available to read here, but below are a few extracts that relate to subjects covered on the Engage 17 Website can be found below:

Marriage

“There are multiple other rights issues that the SDLP will focus on during the upcoming mandate including:

  • Legislation to legalise marriage for same sex couples in Northern Ireland.” (p18)

Abortion

“The SDLP continues to oppose the extension of the 1967 Act. We have called on the Minister of Health and the Minister of Justice to publish the report with the findings from the working group on Fatal Foetal Abnormality.” (p14)

Human Trafficking

“The SDLP has been consistent in our calls for a greater degree of co-operation between the PSNI and An Garda Síochána to deal with crime associated with the border. Fuel laundering, smuggling and human trafficking are all areas in which interagency cooperation is required to successfully achieve convictions. The cost to the public purse, the damage to our shared natural environment and the devastating impact on individuals must be relentlessly pursued.” (p19)

 

Thoughts on the Election by Right Rev Ken Good – Bishop of Derry and Raphoe
Thoughts on the Election by Right Rev Ken Good – Bishop of Derry and Raphoe avatar

Voters across Northern Ireland will go to the polls next month for the second time in less than a year to choose who’ll represent them in the Stormont Assembly. The last Executive collapsed ignominiously, and it may prove difficult to put together a new administration to govern us.

Such is voter disenchantment in Northern Ireland, some commentators fear that the turn out this time is in danger of dropping below 50%. That would be devastating for politics and an insult to democracy.

The circumstances in which the Northern Ireland Executive came apart were unusual but perhaps strangely in keeping with the international mood. It’s been a bizarre period on the wider political stage. Unprecedented. Many political pundits were surprised at the outcome of June’s Brexit referendum and even more so when Donald Trump romped to victory in the US Presidential election. Those two outcomes alone show politicians that they take voters for granted at their peril.

There’s a weary resignation among many people I talk to as they anticipate March’s Assembly poll. Rightly or wrongly they’re fed up with what they see as the failure of Stormont to tackle the big issues in their lives: hospital waiting lists, education, sectarianism, unemployment ….the list goes on.

This feeling of resignation is a far cry from September 2014, when it seemed the whole of Scotland was electrified by the Independence referendum there. The 85% turn out surpassed the 72% for the Brexit referendum and dwarfed the 54% who used their votes in the last NI Assembly election.

One of the things that made the Scottish vote different – that gave it its ‘electricity’ – was the participation of young people. The voting age was reduced to 16 in that referendum, and the youth of Scotland responded magnificently, changing the tone of the debate and enhancing the reputation of Scottish democracy. I would love to see younger voters become more engaged in the political process here, more willing to express their concerns and their hopes, more influential as a voting force that politicians realise they have to take more seriously.

Winston Churchill is reputed to have said: ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’ Northern Ireland’s democracy is far from perfect. By and large it has helped preserve peace for a generation and, for people my age, that is no mean achievement. But those of a younger vintage rightly have much higher ambitions.

If their hopes are to be realised, then progress has to be made peacefully and democratically. If you don’t like the way things are, then change them. If you want change, vote for it.

We’re fortunate here in Northern Ireland. People in many other parts of the world don’t have the luxury of democracy, yet many of us take it for granted. We regard democracy as our right, but we don’t always appreciate it. We regard democracy as our right, but we sometimes treat it carelessly. We regard democracy as our right, but rights bring responsibility.

Democracy is precious. It should never be taken for granted. We should honour it and respect it. Every vote matters. A vote is a precious thing. So let’s not waste it. We should grasp next month’s opportunity to vote, and use it wisely.

Written by Right Rev Ken Good – Bishop of Derry and Raphoe

People Before Profit Manifesto – Where They Stand on our Issues
People Before Profit Manifesto – Where They Stand on our Issues avatar

Yesterday People Before Profit launched its manifesto.

The full Manifesto is available to read here, but below are a few extracts that relate to subjects covered on the Engage 17 Website can be found below:

Marriage

“In particular, we will: Continue to campaign for immediate legislation to enact marriage equality.”(p21)

Abortion

“A recent report from the Equality Commission found that a woman is more likely to be sacked from their job when pregnant than at any other time in her life. Northern Ireland, like the rest of the UK, is now subject to a Benefit Cap which the Guardian newspaper has described as the “two-child” policy i.e. parents will only receive benefits for the first two children in their family- even when the third or subsequent child was born when the parent(s) was in employment.

Yet we are the only part of the UK where abortion is not available on the Health Service and where women too poor to travel to England for an abortion are prosecuted for taking pills obtained over the internet.

People Before Profit trust women to know when they can and cannot bring a child into the world. We want to see abortion treated as a health care issue between a woman and her doctor- legal, safe and available free on the NHS. We can for an immediate end to the criminalisation of women who terminate pregnancies and will work within the Assembly to end the prosecution of women who take abortion pills.” (p20-21)

Religious Liberty

“The LGBTQ community has been failed by Stormont. For too long their rights have been denied, whilst bigots in the Assembly are given free rein to offend…. PBP will continue to work closely with those from the LGBTQ community who are determined to achieve full equality. In particular, we will:

  • Work with the LGBTQ groups and teachers to devise a strategy for eliminating transphobia, biphobia and homophobia within schools, starting with the recording of homophobic bullying incidents and a sex-ed programme fit for the 21st
  • Put pressure within the Assembly for a Sexual Orientation Strategy.
  • Work with others to produce a Gender Recognition Bill for Northern Ireland which includes the best elements of the legislation passed in the South.” (p21)

TUV Manifesto – Where They Stand on our Issues
TUV Manifesto – Where They Stand on our Issues avatar

Recently the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) launched its manifesto.

The full Manifesto is available to read here, but below are a few extracts that relate to subjects covered on the Engage 17 Website can be found below:

Marriage

“TUV will oppose any redefinition of marriage and defend traditional family values as outlined in the founding principles of the party, believing that that is the bedrock for the success of society. Sinn Fein want to force movement on this issue. TUV will not bend on the matter.” (p14)

Abortion

“TUV does not believe that the unborn child should be denied his or her fundamental human rights.

Though there is a superficial plausibility within the promotion of abortion in cases of potentially fatal abnormalities, the experience of the 1967 Act in Great Britain is a salutary warning against such glib assurance. Although the 1967 Act appears to permit abortion only in restricted circumstances, in reality it swung open the door to abortion on demand. Who on reading the supposed restraints of Section 1 of the 1967 Act could imagine that under it over 8,000,000 babies would have been terminated!

It is also important to stress that the current law of Northern Ireland is not an absolute bar to abortion in, for example, a case of severe anencephaly. As the Bourne test makes clear, and as amplified by Girvan LJ in the 2009 Judicial Review, lawful termination is possible where there is a real and serious risk to a woman’s physical or mental health, which is either long term or permanent. Thus, the mother whose mental health is so damaged by carrying a child with fatal foetal abnormality can at present avail of lawful termination within Northern Ireland. In our view this is sufficient.” (p14)

Religious Liberty

“Even a Christian bakery is being persecuted for refusing to promote same sex marriage. We are opposed to YOUR money being used to persecute people with genuinely held beliefs. TUV proposed a vote on slashing the budget of the Equality Commission which has brought the case against Ashers Bakery. Shamefully all other parties in the Assembly – including the DUP – voted against the TUV proposal. The case against Ashers was funded by the Equality Commission. Remember the Equality Commission is funded by your taxes through the Executive Office. It is irrational to say that you oppose the needless action of the Equality Commission and yet oppose reducing their budget.” (p12)

“Public confidence in the rule of law in Northern Ireland has been badly shaken… However, it reached a new low when people saw Pastor McConnell – a man in his eighth decade with a clean record – dragged before the courts for comments made in his own pulpit about Islam and a family run business brought to court because of their refusal to ice a message on a cake.” (p38)