A Presbyterian Church leader has accused the Secretary of State of undermining devolution and school governance in Northern Ireland.
ev Trevor Gribben, Clerk of the General Assembly, warned that the Church will have a strong message for Brandon Lewis at its annual meeting next week.
“We have hard things to say to the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Office about the undermining of devolution,” he said.
“We’ll be asking the assembly to state its clear mind on these issues.”
Leaders from more than 500 congregations across the island will gather in person for the first time since the pandemic to see Rev Dr John Kirkpatrick installed as the new moderator on Wednesday. Hot button issues on the agenda include abortion reform, legacy plans and issues surrounding education, the Northern Ireland Protocol and identity.
Rev Gribben claimed Mr Lewis has been using “draconian powers” to “dictate” what is taught to schoolchildren here.
“What he calls healthcare, we call abortion,” the church leader said.
“[Brandon Lewis] says that is something required to be taught in our curriculum in schools.
“All schools have ethos statements that are set by those who manage them and whatever the Secretary of State imposes on schools has to respect that.
“He has said very clearly he has been given power to dictate not just to the Department of Health but to the Department of Education. That’s a concern to Catholic schools, but also to us.”
The clergyman said he has written to and spoken directly with Mr Lewis, alongside other church leaders.
Contentious issues raised include the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill which will offer immunity to those who co-operate with an information retrieval body.
“The vast majority of victims do not support it,” Rev Gribben said.
The clergyman was just as vocal about Government plans to override the NI Protocol which he believes should be a last resort.
“The effects of the protocol were not envisaged or were underplayed by those on both sides who agreed to it — but it is not working,” he said.
“There’s a lack of confidence in the unionist community and a lack of buying into some of the principals about how we are governed. There is an imbalance to the Good Friday Agreement.”
The Church has not formally responded to the Government’s plans to take unilateral action but Rev Gribben insisted on any attempt to resolve the row should involve negotiations.
“If the EU changes its position it could be a good thing, but if they can’t resolve issues then the British Government has a responsibility to act,” he said.
Rev Gribben also claimed “British culture needs to be affirmed” as he repeated his support for the Irish language which “is no threat to anyone”.
A UK Government spokesperson said: “The Secretary of State is under a legal duty to ensure that adolescents have access to age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, including prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion.
“The implementation of this policy falls within an area for which the Department of Education in Northern Ireland has responsibility and we are engaging with them on this requirement.”