The Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland have issued a statement on the UK referendum on EU membership expressing concern over the reintroduction of border controls, which they say, “would not only have profound implications for trade and the economy, but also for the wider civil society, notably through the disruptive impact on the day-to-day life of those who live in border areas or cross the border frequently. The valuable work carried out to date to build new relationships across these islands must not be undermined.”
The statement, which was issued on the second day of the Summer General Meeting of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, is published on behalf of Archbishop Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh; Bishop Noel Treanor, Bishop of Down and Connor; Bishop John McAreavey, Bishop of Dromore; Bishop Liam MacDaid, Bishop of Clogher and Bishop Donal McKeown, Bishop of Derry.
The bishops said, “On 23 June people in Northern Ireland will be asked to vote in a referendum on the future of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union – a decision charged with far-reaching political, economic and cultural implications for the island of Ireland, for these islands, and for the whole of the European Union. The questions and issues raised by the referendum are complex and challenging. It is crucial that we take seriously our responsibility as citizens to inform ourselves and to vote on the issue at stake. Each individual vote counts as we are presented with an opportunity to have our say on Northern Ireland’s place in Europe and in the international community, with the effects likely to be felt for generations to come. Younger voters are to be particularly encouraged to participate, given the importance of the EU context for their future options in terms of study and employment.”
The bishops went on to quote Pope Francis’ words from his address following his conferral of the Charlemagne prize on 6 May, in which he reflected on the challenged facing contemporary European society, and recalled the vision of the founding fathers of the European Union: “They were prepared to pursue alternative and innovative paths in a world scarred by war. Not only did they boldly conceive the idea of Europe, but they dared to change radically the models that had led only to violence and destruction. They dared to seek multilateral solutions to increasingly shared problems”.
The bishops continued by addressing the economic questions and said, “The question of economic integration and degrees of political unification of member states within the Union are clearly matters of prudential judgment for individuals. At the same time, however, it is worth recognising the links between the core values of Catholic social teaching and the founding vision of the European Union. In the Apostolic Exhortation following on the Second Synod on Europe, Saint John Paul II wrote: “The history of the European continent has been distinctively marked by the life-giving influence of the Gospel. ‘If we turn our gaze to the past centuries, we can only give thanks to the Lord that on our continent Christianity has been a primary factor of unity among peoples and cultures and of the integral promotion of man and his rights’” (Ecclesia in Europa, 2003, 108).”
The bishops went on to say, “The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU places an explicit commitment to human dignity at the heart of the Union. This commitment is evident in the way in which its institutions and daily political life have seen erstwhile enemies come together and commit to the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity as a means to peaceful and effective integration and co-existence between peoples of differing histories, culture and backgrounds. It is important to acknowledge the remarkable achievement of the EU in this area and ensure that this work is not undermined. In an ever more interdependent world, the EU provides individual member states with a valuable mechanism of international influence in terms of peace-making, development, trade negotiation and shared environmental responsibility, in support of the global common good.”
On the European contribution to Northern Ireland and to the island of Ireland the bishops said, “In Northern Ireland, the support of the European Union in the quest for peace and reconciliation has been evident in many ways, including the creation of important spaces for dialogue, financial support for the work of peace and reconciliation, freedom of movement of people, and the development of infrastructure to support new relationships across the island of Ireland and with the UK. We need to be cautious about arguments that would reduce the wide ranging benefits of EU membership to a single calculation of net economic gain or loss. The reintroduction of border controls, for example, would not only have profound implications for trade and the economy, but also for the wider civil society, notably through the disruptive impact on the day-to-day life of those who live in border areas or cross the border frequently. The valuable work carried out to date to build new relationships across these islands must not be undermined.”
The bishops said that Pope Francis has succinctly summarised the vision for the European project set out in the preamble of the founding Treaties as follows: “At the heart of this ambitious political project was confidence in man, not so much as a citizen or an economic agent, but in man, in men and women as persons endowed with transcendent dignity” (Address to the European Parliament, November 2014).
The bishops went on to say, “As citizens of Europe, inspired by our Christian faith, we need to take responsibility for ensuring that the policies of the European Union reflect our commitment to the protection of the dignity of human life at all stages – from the moment of conception until its natural end. This responsibility extends beyond the casting of our vote in the referendum. We need to hold the EU to account – that is, our Ministers and our Members of the European Parliament, our elected representatives at EU level. Human rights considerations need to be at the heart of our approach to European cooperation today so the Union continues to contribute to social justice, social cohesion and equality. True prosperity can only be achieved when the most vulnerable members of society are adequately protected through policies which address poverty, social exclusion, homelessness, health inequalities, and which remove the barriers to integration for refugees and migrants.
“This referendum offers a valuable opportunity to ask ourselves how well the European Union is living up to these values today and what we need to do as citizens to ensure that this framework for cooperation continues to guide nations towards global peace, human development and the common good of all peoples and nations.”
The bishops concluded their statement by encouraging all voters to participate in this important decision.