WASHINGTON (October 16, 1998) -- Bishop Raymond Boland of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, led a delegation from the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) to Northern Ireland to attend the ninth annual meeting of the Inter-Church Committee on Northern Ireland. The trip took place September 30-October 2.
This year's meeting, the first since April's Good Friday Agreement and the establishmentof the new Northern Ireland Assembly, was devoted to discussion of the dramatically improved political climate, with emphasis on ways that the churches can contribute to reconciliation of a deeply divided society.
The Inter-Church Committee, consisting of 16 representatives of the Catholic Bishops and of the Presbyterian Church in the United States and Ireland, was formed in 1990 to improve understanding among the churches and to promote ecumenical cooperation on behalf of peace, justice and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
The USCC and Presbyterian Church, USA delegations also met jointly with a number of political leaders, government officials and human rights groups, including David Trimble, MP, First Minister of the new Northern Ireland Assembly; Lord Alderdice, Speaker of the Assembly; Jeffrey Donaldson, MP of the Ulster Unionist Party; Belfast City Councillor Tom Hartley of Sinn Fein; and Monica McWilliams, an Assembly member representing the Women's Coalition. The two delegations also discussed the progress of the Good Friday Agreement with Gen. John de Chastelain, chairman of the Independent Decommissioning Commission; and with Martin O'Brien of the Committee on the Administration of Justice.
Commenting on the visit, Bishop Boland said, "The Good Friday Agreement is a remarkable accomplishment which offers solid grounds for hope in a just and peaceful future. Political leaders and ordinary citizens alike recognize that there's no alternative to the agreement, and are committed to making it work, despite serious obstacles. The confidence, resolve and good will one observes on all sides is truly inspiring."
The Inter-Church Committee was addressed by Paul Murphy, MP, deputy head of the Northern Ireland Office. In addition to reviewing the programs undertaken under the Committee's auspices, the group discussed the current political situation and the role of the churches in bringing about reconciliation in a deeply divided society.
Members of the Committee also attended a graduation ceremony, sponsored by the Northern Ireland Training and Employment Agency, for 166 students from Northern Ireland and the six border counties who had just completed one year of business studies at 90 Presbyterian, Catholic, Methodist and Episcopal colleges in the United States. The Inter-Church Committee initiated this program, known as the Business Education Initiative, which is now run by the N.I. Training and Employment Agency with the cooperation of the associations of Presbyterian, Catholic, Methodist and Episcopal colleges. The program offers young people, many of them from disadvantaged backgrounds, the broadening experience of foreign study, while contributing to the local economy. It is funded by the Training and Employment Agency, the International Fund for Ireland and the Peace and Reconciliation Fund, with tuition remission provided by participating colleges. A similar number of students will participate in 1998-99.
In addition to its annual meetings and the Business Education Initiative, the Inter-Church Committee's ecumenical activities include regular ecumenical speaking tours; a biennial Summer Institute on Northern Ireland; ecumenical parish twinning programs; and support for fair employment and investment in Northern Ireland.
In addition to Bishop Boland, the USCC delegation included John Carr, secretary of the USCC's Department of Social Development and World Peace, Jack Cullinan, S.J., a foreign policy advisor in the USCC Office of International Justice and Peace, and Dr. Robert Mahony of The Catholic University of America.