The leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland has said politicians should not use the centenary of Northern Ireland to “snipe” at each other.
Archbishop Eamon Martin said all political parties, including nationalists, need to recognise different viewpoints on partition.
A parliament was established in NI in June 1921, formally marking the political separation of the island.
Official events have been put on hold until later this year due to Covid-19.
Archbishop Martin, in an interview with BBC News NI, said the 100-year anniversary provided an opportunity for debate rather than division.
He said: “I would be very disappointed if the centenary became merely an opportunity to snipe at each other from opposite corners, something that would exaggerate our differences.
“I would be saying to all political parties – including those on the nationalist and indeed on the unionist, loyalist side – to try to recognise very differing perspectives and to bring to the conversation this year their own hurts, their feelings of disappointment or their feelings of frustration.”
Archbishop Martin said the centenary provided an “opportunity for us to understand each other better on this island”.
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He added: “I know that many people in my own tradition will look back and see 1921 as a time which we lament – the partition of this island.
“I, and my fellow church leaders, will approach this year with great sensitivity, as an opportunity perhaps to build greater and deeper mutual understanding and also greater reconciliation.”
The head of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Rev David Bruce, said everyone needs to choose their words carefully.
“Many people will want to celebrate this centenary and by extension many others will want to lament it,” he said.
“I think we need to speak into that reality, to speak in ways which are going to nourish our communities rather than further polarise them.”
Chance to reflect
The Northern Ireland parliament which was established in Belfast in 1921 was based at the Presbyterian Church’s theological college in the south of the city until Stormont was built in 1932.
In spite of the political separation of Ireland in the 1920s, the main churches kept their all-island structures.
Archbishop Martin said that the centenary of partition provided an opportunity for reflection.
“That will also involve acknowledging the part that we in the churches have played down through the last century in perhaps allowing or, on some occasions, fomenting difference and discord between people on this island,” he said.
“It really is important for us to recognise each other, even those of us who would like to see ourselves in an all-Ireland or in a united Ireland context, we have to realise that we simply can’t get there without finding a place for all of the legitimate aspirations on this island.”
The main political parties were all invited but only the DUP, Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party agreed to send representatives.