Questions about the forthcoming abortion referendum in the Republic of Ireland dominated the Archbishops of Armagh and Dublin’s news conference on Thursday, although the dispute over a memorial for victims of the Enniskillen bombing, the Irish language and Brexit were also raised.
The Archbishop of Armagh, Most Rev Dr Richard Clarke, emphasised that they would find it ethically unsustainable that there would be 12-week unrestricted access to abortion. Things had, he felt, moved on a little since the two leaders’ joint statement on the Referendum on the Eighth Amendment earlier this year. “The traditional view of the Church of Ireland – and by that I mean 25 years ago – was in fact that the Constitution was probably not the appropriate body or organ in which to decide on very complex issues. What, I think, has complicated it for us now has been the fact that the legislation has almost been elided with constitutional change as far as we can judge, so therefore in voting on constitutional change you are voting on a specific piece of legislation.
“Our point of view certainly was that although maybe in an ideal world the constitution should maybe not cover such issues, where it has been the choice of our legislators to actually elide the constitutional change with specific legislation – and the specific legislation is legislation that we would have huge ethical difficulties with – it’s pushing it back to how you would approach the Constitution. We did suggest that maybe there could be a modification to the Constitution; however, this fell on deaf ears.”
It was suggested to Dr Clarke that people would be voting on the Referendum and not on the legislation, but he felt that the issues could not be separated. “They [the legislators] have had full discussion on it, they have said what way they want to go and that is the complication. People will have to make up their own mind but certainly, as far as I’m concerned, if the outcome is to be of up to 12 weeks unrestricted access to abortion then I would find that indefensible ethically.”
The Archbishop of Dublin, Most Rev Dr Michael Jackson, told the news conference that what they sought to say was descriptive rather than prescriptive. “We would retain an anxiety – and we wouldn’t be alone – about a period of unrestricted access to abortion over 12 weeks, but we are not prescribing, we’re simply describing.”
The archbishops were also asked about the “growing row” in Enniskillen over the siting of a memorial for victims of the Remembrance Sunday bombing. Archbishop Clarke said as far as he understood it was the siting rather than the reality of the memorial that was at issue. “I suppose the hope has got to be that those locally will be able to resolve it. Whether Archbishop Eamon [Martin] will be involved I don’t know. Certainly, from what I can gather, there’s a real feeling locally that it can be solved and will be solved.”
Archbishop Jackson, a previous Bishop of Clogher, urged people on the ground to work tirelessly to resolve the issue of the monument’s location in order not to in any way, consciously or unconsciously, recreate friction in a society which is really in the midst of suffering and torment. “The advances in the midst of tragedy – forgiveness, graciousness and compassion – that people have made in Northern Ireland on both sides (if you want to use that language), I would really plead that those advances not be endangered.”
Archbishop Clarke had called in his presidential address for generosity to be shown. He was asked how one might break the political deadlock in Northern Ireland, which has had no functioning power-sharing Executive for over a year? “A term [people] kept using again was ‘the common good’. What is best for communities? In the Armagh Dioceses and throughout Northern Ireland there are schools that still have to go almost month-to-month without budgets, there are certainly a lot of concerns with the health services in the province. The common good is about education and health. And it seems to me that if the issues are really – as they appear to be – ones that are surmountable (and that was certainly what the Civil Service seemed to suggest at the time), why on earth can there not be sufficient language used to break through, get the institutions up and running, get proper budgets up and running, and maybe move beyond the impasse of the moment?
This year’s Church of Ireland annual directory includes a list of place names in Irish. Dr Clarke said the Irish language is something which could belong to everyone – and – is not a political sparring thing. “I don’t think we should ever regard the Irish language as the property of any one particular segment in Northern Ireland or anywhere else. My Irish is not good but I did feel it is sometimes worth making the point – the good point – that the first translation of a Bible into Irish was by a Church of Ireland bishop.”
Lastly, on the issue of Brexit, Dr Clarke said it was something we were going to have to live with. “The hope and the prayer has got to be that whatever way Brexit affects Ireland it will not do damage to what are actually, at present, relationships between the northern and the southern parts of the island which are really at the moment relaxed.” Dr Jackson said, “This time last year I used a word which I’d use again – a sense of bereavement around Brexit. Having had the opportunity to work for a decade in a border diocese and now working in Dublin, I sense that there is a will to have the least worst Brexit, to be honest, and my hope would be that sophisticated political people would enable us to have a continuing relationship that’s real.