Stormont crisis is hitting the poorest in society hardest, say Church leaders
The political crisis at Stormont is hitting Northern Ireland's poorest people hardest - and risking greater social division in our already fragmented society, according to the leaders of Northern Ireland's four main Churches.
The head of the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Rev Brian Anderson; Church of Ireland archbishop Richard Clarke, Catholic archbishop Eamon Martin, Presbyterian moderator Dr Ian McNie and Dr Donald Watts who presides over the Irish Council of Churches signed the joint statement.
It will put pressure on political representatives entering into the latest Stormont talks process this week.
The power-sharing administration at Stormont is on the brink of collapse due to a crisis sparked by a murder linked to members of the IRA but also a fundamental disagreement over welfare payments which has threatened to break the public spending budget.
The churchmen are concerned at the rising number of people struggling to cope on low incomes - and the anxiety that the current political instability brings to vulnerable members of society.
"As Northern Ireland's elected representatives continue to negotiate the future of our political institutions, an awareness of their shared responsibility for the common good needs to be at the heart of the discussion," the clergymen said.
"Threats to the peace process are most keenly felt in those areas that benefited least from the progress of recent years. A long-term vision, which includes effective measures to address poverty and socio-economic inequality, is essential to rebuild trust and advance the work of reconciliation.
"As Church leaders, committed to the principles of Scripture and the teaching of Jesus, we believe it is right to bring a Christian perspective to the concerns of our community at this time."
The Church leaders' statement voices their fears about the impact of budget cuts and financial uncertainly on the poorest members of society.
"For the rising number of people struggling to cope on low incomes, the current political instability brings further anxiety. In addition to uncertainty about the impact of welfare reform, cuts to essential public services and the failure to agree a budget for future service provision have significant implications for the most vulnerable members of our society," they said.
"As Christians we have a responsibility, not only to give generously to address immediate social need, but to work with political leaders and the wider community to change the structures that are trapping people in cycles of poverty."
Charitable organisations are volunteers are being stretched beyond their capacity to cope, the religious leaders added.
"Local communities are ready to be active partners in tackling the root causes of social exclusion and are best placed to inform and shape this work."
Child poverty is worsening and inequality increasing, the clerics said, due to funding cuts.
"The unacceptable level of child poverty, affecting over 100,000 children, roughly 6% of Northern Ireland's population, constitutes a real crisis.
"Supports that have proved to be effective in recent years in addressing inequality and closing the gap in crucial areas such as educational disadvantage are now being withdrawn through lack of funding.
"The failure to invest adequately in the future leaders of our society is a cause of deep frustration among young people, leaving many feeling disconnected from political processes."
The religious leaders called on Northern Ireland's politicians to "change direction" to help create a more equal and just society.
"Our politicians have a critical opportunity to restore hope to those who are struggling and all those who feel disillusioned with the political institutions. The generosity and solidarity demonstrated by local communities in response to the refugee crisis reflects the kind of society we want to live in. Increasing levels of poverty are taking us further from that vision, threatening social cohesion.
"We urgently need a change in direction, based on sustainable investment in local communities, that will bring us closer to a more equal, just and inclusive society."