Today, Archbishop Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland, led delegations from the Northern Ireland Catholic Council on Social Affairs (NICCOSA) to two official meetings with political parties in Northern Ireland. The first meeting was in Belfast, with members of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by First Minister Arlene Foster MLA. The second meeting, with members of Sinn Fein, led by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness MLA, took place in Armagh.
Speaking after the meetings, Archbishop Martin said the Church delegation welcomed the opportunity to discuss a range of issues with each party, including: "the shocking increase in levels of childhood poverty during the mandate of the last Assembly. We are asking all of the political parties in our meetings to make tackling childhood poverty and other forms of social need a top priority in the next Programme for Government."
Archbishop Martin continued: "It was most encouraging that both parties recognised the vital contribution of Churches and faith groups in providing a range of services that support some of the most vulnerable in our society. We highlighted the need to respect the right of faith-based groups to provide these services in accordance with their particular religious ethos and values. We also asked both parties to consider how Churches and wider civic society could engage in a more structured dialogue with the next Assembly, mindful that the model of a civic forum was an important component of the Belfast Agreement."
Dr Nicola Brady, a member of NICCOSA, said: "As we did last week in our meeting with the SDLP, we emphasised to both parties the importance of consistent support for a culture of life, beginning with the commitment to the protection of the life of the unborn child, including those with life-limiting conditions. We encouraged the parties to work for the establishment of a perinatal hospice facility for Northern Ireland and to recognise the need to provide the best possible care for mothers and unborn children in cases of difficult or crisis pregnancy. We shared our conviction that the best possible future for humanity lies in building a culture of life and care in which the dignity of our beginning and end as persons is reverenced and respected, rather than in a culture where the value of life is diminished and destroyed."
Bishop Donal McKeown, chair of the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education, said: "It is vital that the next Assembly works with all the stakeholders in education to raise standards and aspirations among young people and their families, from all backgrounds, and to enhance the opportunities to achieve their full potential."
The Church delegation highlighted the importance of a strong ethos in raising standards in schools and the right of parents to choose a faith-based education for their children. Bishop McKeown said: "We explained that this does not contradict the commitment of our schools, precisely because of their Catholic ethos, to work for a shared and reconciled society by promoting inclusion and respect for diversity."
Today's meetings with the DUP and Sinn Fein were part of a series of meetings scheduled to take place during April 2016 between Archbishop Eamon Martin and members of NICCOSA, with the main political parties in Northern Ireland.
NICCOSA operates as a sub-committee of the Council for Justice and Peace of the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference. The objectives of NICCOSA are to: Support the Northern Catholic Bishops in the area of social affairs; Assist in coordinating and enhancing the existing work of the Northern Bishops on social, legal, moral and political issues; Represent the Northern Catholic Bishops at relevant meetings; Help promote and develop meaningful and constructive liaison with relevant groups and agencies.
Today's delegations from the Catholic Church, led by Archbishop Eamon Martin, included: Bishop Donal McKeown, Bishop of Derry; both Fr Timothy Bartlett and Dr Nicola Brady of NICCOSA for the meeting with the DUP and Bishop John McAreavey, Bishop of Dromore; Ms Deirdre O'Rawe of Accord NI; Fr Timothy Bartlett and Dr Nicola Brady, for the meeting with Sinn Féin.