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Q & A: Archbishop John McDowell: Why we had to intervene over Brexit legislation

The Archbishop of Armagh, The Most Rev John McDowell tells Premier´s Cara Bentley why he has signed the joint letter arguing against the Government's current Brexit Plan. 

What are your main concerns with the Internal Market Bill?

It's a concern, not just mine, but shared by the other primates from across these islands that if it is proceeded with maybe a little bit too hastily, it could damage rather than help relationships between the people on these islands. It will be a piece of legislation that will have consequences for a very long time. So, we felt that it was better to pause. The Scottish Government and the Welsh Senate have both published their views on it, with the Scottish Government simply rejecting it and the Welsh Senate saying it would need to be very radically amended for them to accept it. There's also some difficulty over some of the things that it says about the Good Friday Agreement, of the human rights provisions in it. So, it doesn't seem to us to be a very good basis on which to move forward, in terms of both the treaty relationships, but also the general relationships between the central and the devolved administrations.

And is that the feeling that you get from people at church, is that how people feel, do you think?

Well, it's very difficult to know how people are thinking at the moment because you can't speak to them at church, they're all wearing masks as you walk in and out and there is very, very little opportunity for that kind of sort of ordinary conversation. But we do get it, yes, I certainly do get it, I get sometimes not quite the opposite view, but I get other views as well. But this was such an important piece of legislation coming in at a very important time, where there are negotiations going on about the future relationship with the EU, when the protocol will start to come into force at the beginning of next year and when these arrangements will begin to take effect in the devolved nations and it just seemed that it was, in a sense, too important simply to be the subject of a rush because of a deadline.

It's quite unconventional for you all to team up and write a letter like this together. How did it come about?

Well, because we discussed it. It is unusual, in the sense that is so unusual for an issue to present itself which has elements which involve all of the four nations in it, and in quite different ways as well. So, there was a conversation about: was this a time to perhaps say something? and I hope that it would be something that brought people together to try to bring a greater sense of agreement and consensus around something that was being done. It was intended as a helpful intervention to do that, and not intended, in any sense, as being hypercritical, but certainly of say, there are certain things in it, which would concern us and from my point of view, from this part of the world, those elements of it which seem to undermine certain facets of the Good Friday Agreement.

And what makes you think, as a church leader, that you should intervene in politics, lots of people might say, we didn't elect you. Why, do you think it's right that you intervene?

Politics isn't simply a question of somebody going into a little booth once every five years and putting a tick against somebody's name and then walking out and forgetting about it. Democratic politics is deeply embedded in society. It is a question of a continuous conversation between government and civil partners on what's being proposed and whatever that might be, whether it was in a manifesto or not in the manifesto, or how that is going to be carried out. One of those civil partners is the church and church leaders. So, there is an expectation, in fact, a duty, a vocation on church leaders to speak in the public square in this way. But in addition to that, there is very, very little in this world which doesn't have an ethical dimension to it. There´s very little in political life that doesn't have an ethical dimension to it. And it's not that churches are the only people who can speak about that. But I think we have something to say in it. People can say we're wrong and can discuss it with us and disprove it or set it aside. The way I've put it in the past is: we don't have the last word, we didn't have the first word, but we have a word to say and in a properly functioning pluralist society, those words get discussed.

How would you like us to pray in light of this issue? And how would you like people to respond to the letter?

Well, it was specifically addressed to the members of the House of Lords, because there's a debate going to happen there this afternoon (Monday). And the bill will come back there for amendments. So, we are asking just to think in terms of the effect that it will have on relationships going forward.

In terms of asking people, there's no doubt that government is a very, very difficult vocation at the moment, very difficult. We appreciate that, and, therefore, to pray for all of those whom God has set and maintains in government. But also to pray for all of those people who feel the effect of actions that happen way 'up there', and they are way 'down here' but it gets down to them, and very often it is the people who have least who are affected by even a trade bill, which could cause prices to rise or could cause standards to fall or could cause consumer choice to be narrowed. And generally to those who are the least well-off and have got least voice - and that is another reason why church leaders very often speak.

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