The leaders of Northern Ireland’s four main churches have united to encourage politicians to sustain the momentum from recent negotiations.
Senior Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist clerics applauded strenuous and sincere efforts to find solutions to contentious parades, flags and dealing with the legacy of the past.
Five-party talks chaired by former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass ended on New Year’s Eve without an all-party accord.
A joint statement from the religious figures said: “As church leaders we encourage politicians to sustain the momentum and energy generated by the talks of the Panel of Parties in the Northern Ireland Executive (of ministers), chaired and facilitated by Dr Richard Haass and his team.
“Significant work has been completed in recent months and we acknowledge the strenuous and sincere efforts put in by all involved in seeking to find solutions to some of the most contentious issues we face.
“This is an important time for our society; the momentum for building peace should not be lost.
“We are aware of the focus and effort that the forthcoming elections will require of our politicians but encourage all within the Executive to keep going with the work that has begun so that an acceptable process may be developed.”
The letter was signed by Catholic Cardinal Sean Brady, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh Dr Richard Clarke, Presbyterian Moderator Dr Rob Craig, Methodist President Dr Heather Morris and Fr Godfrey O’Donnell, President of the Irish Council of Churches.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist First Minister has said much more work is needed to produce a deal on contentious issues which have prompted sectarian riots in the recent past. Peter Robinson said he had not thrown in the towel and his party has endorsed his plan for further discussions.
The Ulster Unionists have already said some of his proposals were unacceptable but Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has claimed they should be implemented as they stand.
The statement from the religious heads said: “We firmly believe that a peaceful and reconciled society is possible. Responsibility for building peace and the development of mutual respect and tolerance in our society does not lie with political leaders alone, but is shared by every individual.
“As Christians we emphasise the value of building trust, in a spirit of generosity and forgiveness. We encourage every member of our community, churches and parishes to be instruments of reconciliation and peace-building.”
Dr Haass was enlisted by Northern Ireland’s ministerial Executive in July to broker a settlement on contentious issues which have sparked sectarian divisions. Despite significant progress on dealing with tensions over more than 3,000 unresolved murders during past decades of conflict, the talks ended without any deal.
They followed months of sporadic loyalist violence over contentious parades, restrictions on the flying of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall and an increase in the number of bomb attacks by dissident republicans opposed to the peace process.
Disputes over contentious parades regularly erupt into street violence while differences over the flying of flags - on public buildings and in loyalist and republican neighbourhoods - cause community conflict.
Arguably the most complex issue has been how Northern Ireland deals with the legacy of a 30-year-conflict, with opposing sides retaining competing narratives of what happened and victims demanding truth and justice.
The Haass proposals envisaged the establishment of the Commission on Identity, Culture and Tradition to examine the flags problem over a longer time frame - potentially 18 months.
The former US envoy to Northern Ireland under the Bush administration recommended the replacement of the UK Government-appointed Parades Commission with a new devolved mechanism for adjudicating on contentious events.
This would consist of an administrative arm - the Office of Parades, Select Commemorations and Related Protests - to deal with applications to march and protest and potentially facilitate mediation between groups.
It would also see the creation of the Authority for Public Events and Adjudication - an independent regulatory body, chaired by a legal figure, which would deliberate on applications for unresolvable parading disputes.
Like the Parades Commission, it would have seven independent members, but the new authority would also provide more scope for appealing against decisions.