Church leaders in Ireland have welcomed an agreement concluded between the two largest political parties in Northern Ireland, which will see the completion of a process of devolving power from the British government - writes Ray McMenamin.
The Roman Catholic Primate of All Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady hailed news of the agreement reached on 5 February 2010, saying, "My prayer is that everyone in our society will reflect on what has been agreed today with a spirit of generosity and concern for the good of the whole community." Brady also expressed his hopes for a resolution of issues concerning sectarian parades, which have in past led to violent confrontations.
"I want to express my particular hope that efforts to address the issue of parades will be met with generosity, sensitivity and a willingness to go beyond old ways of approaching each other on all sides," said the cardinal.
His (Anglican) Church of Ireland counterpart, Bishop Alan Harper, said, "I most warmly welcome the news that agreement has been reached on a way forward on the devolution of justice and policing powers to Northern Ireland, together with the other issues that have been taken into account in the recent protracted negotiations."
For many years, Protestant groups such as the Orange Order have marched through streets in Northern Ireland in the summer to commemorate the victory of King William III, a Protestant over King James II, a Catholic, at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Many Catholics consider the parades to be offensive.
The two largest parties in the province of Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party which draws its support from the Protestant community, and the mainly Catholic-supported Sinn Fein party, had been locked in a months-long standoff over the issue of police powers and a process to bring them under local control. Until now, they have been under British control.
Under the terms of the Belfast Agreement signed on Good Friday, 10 April 1998, responsibility for a wide range of government departments was transferred to a Northern Ireland executive and assembly. The First Minister and deputy First Minister must come from the two political traditions in Northern Ireland which have been bitterly opposed to one another - the mainly Roman Catholic nationalist community and the predominantly Protestant community which has favoured union with Britain.
Various government departments were established and headed by ministers in the executive and are responsible for areas such as finance, health, education, the environment and agriculture. The 1998 agreement provided for the devolution of authority over the policing and justice systems but specified that this would only take place, "with the broad support of the political parties".
The 5 February agreement will see authority over the Northern Ireland policing and justice systems devolved on 12 April, more than 12 years after the original agreement was signed. A cross-community vote, requiring a majority of both nationalists and unionists, will take place to effect this on 9 March.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]