14 April 2011
Northern Ireland Catholic Council on Social Affairs (NICCOSA) hosts a discussion on the common good ahead of elections in Northern Ireland
‘Over 100, 000 children in Northern Ireland live in poverty. This is unacceptable. For every citizen the horror of this poverty deserves to be a key issue in determining which party and politician we vote for in the forthcoming election.’ – Bishop Noël Treanor
Today, 14 April, the Northern Ireland Catholic Council on Social Affairs (NICCOSA) hosted a pre-Assembly election event entitled From Crisis to Hope: Working to Achieve the Common Good in Forthspring Inter-Community Group Centre, Springfield Road, Belfast.
Key note speakers for the event were Bishop Noël Treanor, Bishop of Down and Connor and Chair of the Commission for Social and International Affairs of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference and Rev Dr Wesley Blair, Chair of the Council of Social Responsibility of the Methodist Church in Ireland. The discussion was chaired by Mr Eamonn Mallie, journalist and author.
Addressing representatives of Church, political parties and community and voluntary organisations Bishop Treanor highlighted the need for the next Northern Ireland Assembly to address the fact that Northern Ireland has the highest levels of childhood poverty for any region on the island of island or the United Kingdom. In a comprehensive address Bishop Treanor also said:
‘All Christians have a serious duty to vote in the forthcoming Assembly elections… This includes the duty to weigh up the choices that confront society and to choose those candidates or parties who most uphold the dignity of every person, from conception to natural death, and the integral development of society by building up the common good.’
‘It has been said that this could be the first election in Northern Ireland which moves beyond the old tribal politics of the past. I hope this will be the case… The Gospel values and principles stretch us to see the other person, whom we too easily regard as stranger, as being in fact our neighbour for whose well-being we carry a God-given responsibility.’
‘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.’
The full text of Bishop Treanor’s address follows after ‘Notes for Editors’.
In an address entitled “Reflections on crisis, hope and the journey from one to the other”, Dr Blair reflected on the meaning of the terms “crisis” and “hope” in Northern Ireland today, before examining concrete examples where crisis has been transformed into hope. On the basis of this reflection, he identified key principles involved in this journey, together with the implications for social policy.
He stated: “Of all the issues facing the electorate at this time, issues of poverty and deprivation are clearly among the most pressing. Churches have always been concerned about issues of social justice and it is right and proper that in this period we reflect on them together.”
The second part of the event took the form of a panel discussion with contributions from: Ms Jan Melia, representing Forthspring Inter-Community Group; Ms Sandra Moore, Director of Homelessness Services at the Welcome Organisation, Belfast; Ms Deirdre O’Rawe, Regional Director, ACCORD Northern Ireland; and Rev Bill Shaw, Director, The 174 Trust.
Rev Shaw warned that: “The vulnerable and the voiceless are always at most risk from being pushed to the margins – or worse – ‘airbrushed’ from our consciousness. This risk is increased in times of economic hardship when the gap between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ widens and the attitude is often one of ‘everyman/woman for themselves’. That is why it is imperative that the church speak up – and out – for the those who find themselves under the most incredible pressure just to get by.”
Ms Sandra Moore addressed the role of political leaders in tackling homelessness and related social problems: “As well as being a serious problem in its own right, homelessness is a symptom of wider problems compounded by poverty. We see the number of people presenting as homelessness at its highest in the last decade. More families will lose their homes in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK this year, with a total of 2,540 houses expected to be repossessed. Looking forward, we see increased affordability pressures. Of particular concern will be the impact of rising inflation and interest rates on hard-pressed homeowners and the effect of continuing job losses and benefit changes. One in four of our young people are currently unemployed, leaving many disaffected and open to exploitation and radicalisation. These issues cannot be countered solely by the community and statutory agencies – they need to be tacked economically. I would urge the Northern Ireland Executive to take advice from the people directly affected and their representatives on how best to protect and support those most in need.”
Ms Deirdre O’Rawe drew attention to the impact of financial pressures on marital relationships and family life: “Not surprisingly the demand for marriage and relationship counseling has increased significantly during the last few years as couples struggle to maintain healthy relationships under the pressures of unemployment and/or mounting debt. It is important that these issues are seen as family issues and that families communicate in order to address the difficulties they are experiencing. As an agency of the Church, ACCORD provides its services based on client need rather than ability to pay.”
In the view of Jan Melia: “The current crisis is a time for churches and community and statutory agencies to put down their differences and muck in together to support people. From all communities across Ireland, North and South, we need to be talking, planning, and working together without judgement or rhetoric or division. Actions will speak louder than words.”
Notes for Editors:
1. The Northern Ireland Catholic Council on Social Affairs is the Northern Ireland sub-committee of the Council for Justice and Peace of the Irish Bishops’ Conference. With a membership of mostly lay Catholics with relevant experience and expertise, NICCOSA provides advice and support to the bishops of Northern Ireland on social, legal and political issues. The Council is chaired by Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop of Armagh and President of the Bishops’ Conference, assisted by Bishop Noël Treanor.
2. Speaker profiles:
Bishop Noël Treanor
Bishop of Down and Connor Diocese and Chair of the Commission for Social and International Affairs of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
Rev Dr Wesley Blair
Trained originally as an atomic physicist after which he taught for a number of years in Northern Ireland. After training and ordination he served in a variety of churches, both rural and urban. He is currently serving in East Belfast. He also chairs the Methodist Council on Social Responsibility.
Ms Jan Melia
Cross community worker, working in Ireland, North and South for 20 years. Jan works in all communities, with all people of all ages, cultures and faiths, promoting inclusion, addressing issues of resources and supporting people to create change.
Ms Sandra Moore
Director of Homelessness Services at The Welcome Organisation, a Belfast based charity, which has been operational in the city providing services to the homeless and vulnerable for the last 16 years. Sandra joined the Welcome Organisation three years ago. During this time the Organisation has seen significant growth from a small community-based organisation to one of the most significant homelessness service providers in Belfast, delivering support to over 1000 individuals last year through its drop-in centre, day and night street outreach and crisis accommodation services.
Ms Deirdre O’Rawe
A member of the Northern Ireland Catholic Council on Social Affairs. Deirdre has been Regional Director of ACCORD Northern Ireland for twelve years. ACCORD is an agency of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, which has been working to promote Christian marriage throughout the island for over 40 years.
Rev Bill Shaw
Presbyterian Minister and Director of the 174 Trust. The Trust was established in 1982 on the Antrim Road by a group of concerned Christians seeking to address issues affecting the local community. Today it is a non-denominational Christian organization that facilitates a variety of essential community projects in North Belfast.
From Crisis to Hope: Working to Achieve the Common Good
Most Reverend Noël Treanor
Bishop of Down & Connor
Forthspring Community Centre, Springfield Road, Belfast
Thursday 14 April 2011
Let me begin by saying how pleased I am to be here in Forthspring. Forthspring represents for me all those community and voluntary initiatives that have long been a vital source of transformation and hope in our society. Working at the interface between divided communities such initiatives often lead the way in the hard, daily grind of practical peace-making. They give witness to the possibility of new horizons in our search for a better society, a society forged out of our common human interest in building a brighter future for ourselves and generations to come. Like so many of the projects represented by our panel and our guests here this morning, Forthspring also operates at the critical interface between the dreams and aspirations of so many individuals and families and the painful reality of increasing economic distress and social need. As Northern Ireland emerges from the dissonance of violent conflict, the distressing legacy of human, social and economic fragility and need looms ever larger and cries out for concerted and strategic response on the part of those we elect to our political institutions.
I am here this morning with Dr Wesley Blair of the Council of Social Responsibility of the Methodist Church in Ireland to express our shared Christian concern to see this crisis of social need in Northern Ireland addressed comprehensively and as a matter of priority by our elected representatives in the forthcoming Assembly elections. The Methodist Church and the Catholic Church share a long tradition of emphasis on the social dimension of the Gospel in teaching, witness and mission. With all Christians we unite around the conviction that the message of Jesus Christ affirms the innate dignity of every person and the possibility of a shared vision of social relationships based on the principles of justice, solidarity and love. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all those from the Christian community who give of their time, talent and resources to addressing social need in projects such as Forthspring. I pay particular tribute to Rev. Richard Johnson and Rev Chris Fraser from the Board of Forthspring and to Maura Moore and her staff for making us so welcome here this morning.
We meet in the context of local Assembly elections. We also meet in the context of global economic upheaval. The dramatic events in the international banking system in recent years have had profound consequences for both individuals and national economies. Northern Ireland is a unique interface in this global crisis. It is has to respond to dramatic cuts to public spending over which it has no effective control arising from the economic situation in the United Kingdom. At the same time it is heavily impacted by the dramatic economic downturn in the other part of the island and the decisions of the Irish Government in respect of NAMA and some of our major commercial and domestic lending banks, over which again we have no control. Add to this the history of underinvestment in capital infrastructure and resources and the unusually high level of dependence on the public sector in the NI economy and it is easy to see the difficult economic path to growth our politicians in the Assembly will have to navigate during the next Assembly term.
In the words of From Crisis to Hope, ‘there is a need to acknowledge the interconnectedness of the economies on the island of Ireland; there is also a need to go beyond mere expressions of sympathy and concern’ (p.9). The fundamental thesis of From Crisis to Hope, indeed of our shared event here today, is that the current economic crisis facing these islands and both parts of this island are both a challenge and an opportunity to re-‘vision’ our society, to reassess the fundamental values that have been shaping our society and that have contributed to the current economic malaise.
In his 2009 Encyclical Caritatis in Veritate, on Integral Human Development, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the global economic crisis then unfolding, in the following compelling terms: ‘The current crisis obliges us to re-plan our journey, to set ourselves new rules and to discover new forms of commitment, to build on positive experiences and to reject negative ones. The crisis thus becomes an opportunity for discernment, in which to shape a new vision for the future.’ (n. 21)
As part of our effort to discern the values and principles that can help us to re-plan our journey, that can help to avoid the mistakes of the past and chart a more balanced, sustainable way forward, the Council for Justice and Peace of the Irish Bishops’ Conference published the document, which we reissue today specifically for the elections in Northern Ireland, entitled ‘From Crisis to Hope: Working to Achieve the Common Good’. I want to pray tribute to Fr Eoin Cassidy and Dr Nicola Rooney from the Council for their particular contribution to this challenging and insightful document and for bringing it to completion in time for the elections in both jurisdictions. It offers a reflection on some of the key social and economic issues facing Ireland, North and South from the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching, rooted in the Gospel tradition of justice as the basis for social well-being and peace. It sets out the values the Council believes should inform the crucial choices we make as individuals in the elections that will take place on the 5th May.
It does not tell people how to vote. Catholic Social teaching is very clear that ‘the Church is not to be confused with the political community and is not bound to any political system. In fact, the political community and the Church are autonomous and independent of each other in their own fields’. Under different titles, both Church and State are “devoted to the service of the personal and social vocation of the same human beings” and therefore in working for the well-being of individuals and society they share a common interest and responsibility.
It is therefore appropriate that the Christian community participates in public debate about the values that should inform the common good through legislation and policy. Those who would seek to limit the role or scope of religious belief to the private sphere undermine the very principles of freedom, pluralism and democracy. Christians have a right and a duty to contribute to the cultural, economic, political and social life of the society to which they belong. They are called to be active citizens working for the common good through their participation in all that contributes to the integral development of society and the person. This includes the duty to weigh up the choices that confront society in an election and to choose those candidates or parties who most uphold the dignity of every person, from conception to natural death, and the integral development of society by building up the common good. This includes the duty to vote. All Christians have a serious duty to vote in the forthcoming Assembly elections and to use that vote in accordance with their Christian conscience and the values that will enhance the common good of our society. This means moving beyond historic allegiances to an engagement with the policies and principles of every candidate and party that stands for election. It has been said that this could be the first election in Northern Ireland which moves beyond the old tribal politics of the past. I hope this will be the case. I hope that Christians of every denomination will weigh up the issues that confront our society at this time and vote, after prayer and reflection, in accordance with the prejudice-breaking values and principles of the Gospel. The Gospel values and principles stretch us to see the other person, whom we too easily regard as stranger, as being in fact our neighbour for whose well-being we carry a God-given responsibility. These Gospel values include the value of respect for life from the moment of conception to natural death, the principle that marriage between a woman and man is the basis for the family as the fundamental unit of a cohesive society and the promotion of justice in society.
Building Cohesive Communities:
From Crisis to Hope emphasises this point. The key objective behind all our decisions and actions as citizens, including how we use our vote, should be to build a society worthy of the human person. The document draws attention to what Pope Benedict has described as the growth of an ‘increasingly radical individualism’ and asks if we are in danger of losing the sense of what it means to belong to a society. Catholic social teaching holds that the human person is a social being and that we can only fulfil our vocation as a human person, made in the image and likeness of the Triune God, in relation to God and others. This makes building up strong, cohesive, vibrant and reconciled local communities a part of the fundamental mission of the Christian community and an urgent human task. It is important that the next Assembly recognises the importance of addressing many of the most urgent social needs of our society on the basis of partnership with local communities and all the agents of social capital that contribute to the well-being and quality of life of those communities. This includes building active partnerships with Churches as well as voluntary and non-statutory groups in each area with a view to co-ordinating the use of resources for the benefit of everyone in that local community.
This is perhaps nowhere more urgent than in the area of childhood poverty. In December past the Northern Ireland Catholic Council on Social Affairs (NICCOSA) published the document Challenging Poverty in Northern Ireland in collaboration with the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and St Mary’s University College here in west Belfast. In that document we highlighted our failure as a society since the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement to address many of the issues of social need that were most urgent during the period of societal conflict. This includes the long-term inter-generational unemployment running through families and communities of particular need in Northern Ireland, the high level of dependency on state benefits and the precarious situation of so many older people unable even to heat their homes or provide for their basic health needs. It is vital that the next Assembly does all in its power to address these long-standing and urgent issues of basic human dignity, need and well-being through a united and determined effort on the part of all parties. But by far the most disturbing statistics were those in relation to childhood poverty in Northern Ireland. Since then the statistics published by the NI Assembly Research and Library Service (RLS) only serve to confirm the stark urgency of this issue. The Assembly RLS statistics for 1998, the year of the Good Friday Agreement, to 2010, show that Northern Ireland continued to have the highest levels of both relative and absolute childhood poverty of all the regions in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
What is even more damning is, that after some initial success in reducing the percentage of children living in absolute poverty in the period from 2000- 2005, the statistics point to an increase in the levels of absolute poverty among children in Northern Ireland in the past three years. This is a terrible indictment on our social and economic priorities as a society and on the determination of our politicians and others to address this issue. Over 100, 000 children in Northern Ireland live in poverty. This is unacceptable. For every citizen the horror of this poverty deserves to be a key issue in determining which party and politician we vote for in the forthcoming election. For Christians, giving priority to this issue is a fundamental duty of justice arising directly from the Gospel imperative to give priority to our care for the ‘little ones’ of God.
Addressing childhood poverty, of course, requires addressing all of those issues that contribute to the well-being and progress of young people in our society. Research clearly shows that providing support for parenting, as well as stable home and family environments for children enhances their chances of educational and economic well-being.From Crisis to Hope highlights this essential link between strong support for parenting and the family unit as a key to enhancing the quality of life of children and young people. This is to suggest another area of priority for Christians in choosing how to use their vote. Christians should not hesitate to ask those canvassing for their vote what they intend to do to support the institution of marriage and the family, as well as parents as part of ensuring the best environment for the progress and well being of children.
Formal education and schooling also has a critical role to play. 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.
The underachievement of any child in our society is an issue of concern for all who are involved in the provision of education in our society. It is vital that we explore every opportunity for partnership, sharing and mutual support in the interests of raising standards for all of children in Northern Ireland. The Trustees of Catholic schools have been consistent in making it clear that they are open to exploring new, creative and agreed models of partnership and sharing of resources in the interests of the common good. There are many models of partnership and sharing available which respect the right of parents to schools with a particular ethos and identity. To limit this discussion to one type or model of ‘integrated schooling’ is unhelpful and impoverishes the scope of choice available to parents. Genuine respect for diversity respects the right to diversity while challenging all to fulfil their duty to a shared future and the common good. Social solidarity and concern for the common good draws us beyond traditional boundaries of national, cultural or religious identity into the vision of a collaborative future based on partnership and mutual respect.
The Catholic Trustees have also been very clear that the fundamental issue to be addressed in our school system in not selection or academic transfer but the glaring social and economic inequalities in our education system. Social solidarity and the common good call us to ensure that every child in our society has the opportunity, investment and resources available to them that will allow them to achieve their full potential. As we point out in From Crisis to Hope, ‘the common good emphasizes the essential equality of all persons…. All are to be respected and their basis needs to be met so that may reach their fulfilment more fully and easily’. In the context of education in Northern Ireland this can only be achieved through a coordinated approach to educational excellence by all schools in a given area. There is an urgent need for the next Executive to resolve the whole range of issues affecting schools and schooling in Northern Ireland on the basis of partnership and a commitment to the good of all children, not just those who excel in a limited range of competences at a very early stage of their lives.
Stability and good relationships:
The well being and potential of current and future generations is also put at risk by those who would seek to destroy the peace and stability of our society. In launching Challenging Poverty in Northern Ireland the Catholic Council for Social Affairs drew attention to danger of social fragmentation and lack of cohesion in local communities contributing to a resurgence of violence for political ends. Sadly a small number have chosen to reject the common good as well as the express will of the people by pursuing such violence with lethal force and disruptive intent. A strong and effective Assembly which shows that it can address the pressing issues of social need in our society with the unity and determination shown at the funeral of the late Constable Ronan Kerr will be vital in undermining the misguided efforts and evil intent of those who chose the way of violence.
The document From Crisis to Hope offers what I believe are many other important insights and reflections on the application of the Gospel to the issues facing our society at this time. It talks about the need to ensure that our financial institutions and other businesses exist to generate wealth in the service of people rather than employ people in the service of wealth. It talks about the need to support enterprise through responsible lending and investment practices. Vitally, it talks about a just, fair and compassionate response to those dealing with situations of outstanding debt, something Dr Blair I believe will address in more detail.
Ultimately, the document encourages Christians to ask questions of our politicians when they come canvassing votes. It encourages them to ask questions arising from the social teaching of the Gospel such as: what do you propose to do to end poverty and social exclusion? What do you intend to do to address the unacceptable levels of absolute poverty among children in Northern Ireland? What do you intend for those struggling with debilitating levels of debt? What are your policies for supporting parenting, marriage and the family? What are your policies for addressing educational under-achievement, particular of young protestant males in working class areas? How will you seek to uphold the inherent dignity of every person and their right to life and security from the first the first moment of conception to natural death? These are signpost questions for assuring the anthropological quality and creativity of politics at the service of the entire community.
In commending this document to you today, in inviting all Christians and people of good will with a concern for justice and the common good to read it, I remind you that its central thesis is that we live in a moment of great challenge for our society but also of hope. The forthcoming election and how we chose to vote are an opportunity to give shape to that hope and to ensure that social solidarity, justice and the common good are the values that guide us to the brighter future that we all hope for and deserve.
Thank you for your attention.
NICCOSA: Fr Timothy Bartlett 0044 (0) 787 941 6685 and Dr Nicola Rooney 00 353 (0) 87 740 6290.
Catholic Communications Office, Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678.