LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Ireland’s bishops are urging a focus on social justice issues as the Republic of Ireland prepares for a Feb. 8 general election.

“All politicians must commit to prioritizing the common good in any new Government, ahead of political spin, point-scoring or popularity,” said Bishop Alan McGuckian, chairman of the Council for Justice and Peace of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar called for a vote on Jan. 14, seeking a new mandate as Ireland deals with the aftermath of Brexit – which takes place Jan. 31 – and the resumption of a power sharing deal in Northern Ireland.

Varadkar has never led his ruling Fine Gael Party in an election – the last one being in 2016 – since he took over from Enda Kenny in 2017. However, he was prime minister during the 2018 Irish abortion referendum.

In his Jan. 29 statement, McGuckian said the Catholic Church does not support or align itself with any political party, however he wanted to highlight “important issues facing our society at this time which all politicians seeking election should aim to address,” including: Housing and homelessness; care for the environment; tolerance in our society; and challenges facing young people.

“I note, with concern, some of the trends in our current housing crisis, including: Increasingly houses and homes are regarded as financial assets rather than essential needs. This way of thinking needs to be reversed to put the person, the family and the local community at the center of housing policies,” the bishop said.

“The growing phenomenon of family homelessness and the increasing number of children in temporary accommodation must be addressed as the distress, worry and trauma which these families and children endure is immense and will have lasting impact on their opportunities in life,” he continued, adding, “Young people today find it so difficult to afford to rent or buy their own home and begin independent or family life. Left unchecked this could have serious implications for society.”

McGuckian also pointed to the “scandal” that over 10,000 people are homeless in the country, saying it “cannot become a societal norm,” and must be “addressed with urgency” by whoever wins the election.

The bishop also called for the political will to implement “policies to bring about radical climate action.”

“We are all now aware of the increasing need for urgent action to protect our common home and preserve it for future generations. Recent extreme weather events signal to us the devastating impact of inaction,” he said. “In our own country we are witnessing the loss of species and biodiversity which played their role in the beauty, richness and delicate balance of God’s creation.”

He called on the next government to prioritize “immediate action” on environmental issues, to ensure that certain sectors of our society, such as the agricultural sector and those already experiencing poverty, are not disproportionately disadvantaged by climate-related policies, and to ensure that environmental policies “do not fall victim to easy wins or political expediency.”

McGuckian also called on the new government to provide “the most humane solutions” to the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers and refugees.

“War, authoritarian regimes, economic deprivation and climate change continue to force people to take dangerous and arduous journeys seeking hope and a better life on farther shores,” he said.

“In Ireland we are not strangers to emigration which has for centuries dominated our history as a people. Our ancestors were grateful for opportunities to escape famine and destitution and to be allowed to contribute through our work, talents and values to the enhancement of the new societies to which we travelled. Refugees and asylum seekers now arrive on our shores. As Christians we should seek to welcome them as our sisters and brothers,” the bishop said.

Finally, McGuckian pointed to the challenges faced by young people in Ireland.

“In particular, I am concerned about the growing impact of so-called precarious work on young people and families. This often disproportionately impacts on young people who are socially or educationally disadvantaged and are vulnerable to exploitation by employers because of the limited options available to them,” he said.

The bishop acknowledged that more flexible working conditions can be a positive development for employees. He said that when employers take advantage of workers by infringing on their right to fair contracts and entitlements through, among other schemes, bogus self-employment or extremely short-term contracts, it has negative consequences for the individual’s progress and development.

“It impacts on their financial security and their ability to buy a home or start a family. It also influences their own sense of accomplishment, purpose and value,” he said.

The bishop called on the next government to strengthen labor regulations and laws where necessary to ensure workers are treated equitably by employers, and to develop a strategy to address other issues surrounding precarious work such as in-work poverty and access to social supports.

“The future Government must be firm in prioritizing the common good. It must also be steadfast in its commitment to ensuring the best outcome from Brexit for the whole island and remain committed to peace in Northern Ireland and to developing and maintaining positive relationships with our neighbors in the UK and Europe,” McGuckian said.

Recent polls show that the main opposition Fianna Fáil is likely to win the most seats in the Irish assembly, although falling short of a majority. There has also been a surge of support for Sinn Féin, the nationalist all-Ireland party best known for its longtime connection with the Irish Republican Army.

In the past, the Republic of Ireland’s main parties have refused to form coalitions with Sinn Féin, due to its association with the militant group, although with no party likely to get a majority, this long held position might change, especially given the nationalist party’s longtime role in the government of Northern Ireland.

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