Faith Communities: Protections

Oral Answers to Questions — Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 2nd March 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of David McIlveen David McIlveen DUP 2:30 pm, 2nd March 2015

T2. Mr D McIlveen asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether they believe that improvements could be made in the Executive in affording more protections to faith communities in Northern Ireland. (AQT 2182/11-15)

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

I think that there are tremendous protections for faith communities in the North of Ireland, and I have a tremendous respect for all of the Churches and the contributions that they have made through what has been a very challenging time for us in terms of the political process, and also the tremendous work that the Churches do in bringing people together.

The point that the Member mentioned obviously has some currency in relation to the ongoing discussions. I understand that there was an important meeting between the Bishop of Down and Connor and the DUP last week. It was quite interesting that there was also a meeting between me and the Bishop of Down and Connor a week before that. Obviously, the Churches have a very great interest in meeting politicians. As we go forward, we have to ensure that we have a very fine balance between the rights of faith communities and minorities in our society, because a chief responsibility of the Assembly and the Executive is to ensure that we protect the rights of everyone and that there is equality for everyone whilst, at the same time, not denying anyone the right to practise their faith.

Photo of David McIlveen David McIlveen DUP

I thank the deputy First Minister for his answer and welcome the fact of his church attendance in the last couple of weeks. Will the deputy First Minister give us some indication, bearing in mind that he made the point that faith is not just reserved for the Christian community but is broader, of whether he has any objections to the issue of the protection and the rights of people of faith being included in the commission that was recommended by the Stormont House Agreement? Has he any objections to that being part of it?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

I think that the Member mentioning my attendance at church in recent times is a bit bizarre. I am a regular church attender, and sometimes I go there with the First Minister and, indeed, with others when the occasion demands. I have a huge respect for all Churches. As someone who is a Catholic, I try to be the best Catholic that I possibly can be. At the same time, during the Stormont House negotiations, the purpose of the commission that we agreed was to deal with the whole issue of flags, symbols and emblems, and I think that that would be stretching the remit, although I am certainly open to conversations during the party leaders' meeting around the issue that the Member raised. I know that he is very close to his own faith. I know some people who are very close to him also, and he knows that I know them, and he knows that I have a great admiration and respect for them, even though they come from a completely different religious position from mine.

I think that we all have to respect each other. We have to recognise that the whole issue of religion can be very divisive and very damaging to our society. We only have to look further afield to what is happening in other parts of the world to see the atrocious activities of groups like ISIS and the way in which it targets religions of all descriptions and carries out mass murder in order to get its own way. So, hopefully we are a society —

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

You are talking about mass murder?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

— that is emerging successfully from conflict, and I think that the vast majority of the Members, with the exception of maybe one in the House, sing from the same hymn sheet as I do on this.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

I intend to make this the last time that I warn Members. If you interrupt a Minister in the middle of an answer — that is, you are preventing everybody else from hearing the answer — I will take action. I hope that that is as clear as it can be.