THE spiritual leaders of thousands across North Antrim have taken the unusual step of calling for an end to the current political disturbances in the province which have mainly stemmed from the Union flag controversy.

The Route Presbytery, which represents some ten thousand Presbyterians in twenty- two congregations in Ballymoney, Ballycastle, Bushmills and surrounding districts, has encouraged the general public, politicians and churches to continue to work hard towards a peaceful resolution of problems.

At its February meeting, members of Presbytery heard a report from the Good Relations Agent of Presbytery, the Reverend Dr Philip Wilson from Bushmills, which highlighted the province-wide disputes about the decision of Belfast City Council to stop flying the Union Flag 365 days a year, as well as the on-going threat from dissident Republican terrorists.

Dr Wilson reported that since Belfast Council made their decision on 3rd December, there have been sporadic protests across the province, including in the Route Presbytery, most of which have been peaceful, some of which have not. Presbytery heard that as of the beginning of February, 128 police officers have been injured, there have been 191 arrests and 128 people charged. The cost to the economy and policing has run to tens of millions of pounds. The cost to the peace and stability of security force families has been inestimable and is mounting. Businesses, shops and those involved in the tourist sector have all reported adverse effects at a time of economic recession when they are already suffering greatly.

In his report to Presbytery, Philip Wilson commented: “When it is asked why people are protesting, the answers seem to be complex. A considerable number feel genuinely annoyed at the decision made by the council, which is no longer under Unionist overall control, to restrict the flying of the flag to 18 designated days. They see this as more than a piece of colourful symbolism, but something more akin to a change of constitutional status.

Others have openly said that, even if the flag were reinstated, they would still be protesting. They see this as but another aspect of Protestant culture being eroded, further examples often cited being the re-routing of traditional parades and the whole basis of sharing power with Nationalists and Republicans. There are other groups, alas, on the streets: youngsters of eight or nine years of age who are being taught the ways of violence, as well as anarchists (for want of a better word) who openly say they dismiss the whole democratic process.”

Presbytery heard that many feel let down, ignored and marginalised in their own country: “there is now well established in many of our communities a sub-culture which does not work, is formally educated to a poor level, which feels left out of the political and economic processes and has no place in many or any of our congregations.”

The Presbytery also considered the continued threat from Republican dissident terrorists. In January there were two viable devices found in Belfast within 24 hours. The previous month there was a bomb found underneath a police officer’s car and in November, prison officer David Black was murdered. In the Republic, dissident Republicans have threatened the lives of those serving in the British armed forces, as well as their families. Presbytery heard that the flag protests are coming at a critical time in the general security situation overall and vital resources are being deployed to deal with public protests that are needed elsewhere.

After some discussion, the Route Presbytery unanimously agreed the following resolutions:

1. That Presbytery, whilst recognising democracy to be an imperfect system of government, sees it as a uniquely useful way of resolving differences of opinion between various groups and individuals;

2. That Presbytery upholds the right of assembly and free speech to all who feel aggrieved, but that this right should not encroach upon the well-being – both physical and financial of others;

3. That Presbytery supports pastorally, prayerfully and practically the work of the security forces in keeping the province safe from threats – from wherever those threats might come;

4. That Presbytery encourages congregations to engage more with those who feel aggrieved by and separated from the current political processes, so that they may be listened to, understood and, where necessary, assisted;

5. That Presbytery encourages politicians of all kinds to continue to engage with as many people in their constituencies as possible to create a society which is inclusive and genuinely peaceful.

Following the meeting, the Moderator of the Route Presbytery, the Reverend Roy Gaston of Finvoy commented: “Presbytery does not often make a statement about political affairs, but it was felt that it was necessary to do so at this time, so that ministers, congregations and individual Christians could keep these matters in mind and in their prayers.”