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Text: Duncan Morrow, Derek Birrell, John Greer and Terry O'Keeffe ... Page Design: John Hughes

The Churches and Inter-Community Relationships frontispiece

The Churches and Inter-Community Relationships

by Duncan Morrow, Derek Birrell, John Greer and Terry O'Keeffe
Published by the University of Ulster, Coleraine 1991, reprinted 1994
ISBN 1 85923 085 7
Paperback 267 pp £2.00

Out of Print

This material is copyright of the Centre for the Study of Conflict and the author(s) and is included on the CAIN web site with the permission of the publisher. Reproduction or redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

The Churches and Inter-Community Relationships

by Duncan Morrow, Derek Birrell, John Greer and Terry O'Keeffe

Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster



Section One:


Section Two:

Church and Society: A Survey of Clergy

Section Three:

Faith and Life in a Small Rural Town

Section Four:

Holy War in the Belfast Area

Section Five:

Churches and the Community in the Waterside

Section Six:

Reflections, the Churches and Inter-community Relationships




The Centre for the Study of Conflict is a research centre based in the University of Ulster. Its main work is the promotion and encouragement of research on the community conflict and to this end it concentrates on practical issues to do with institutional and community structures and change. It publishes papers and books arising out of this work including: a series of research papers particularly designed to make available research data and reports; a series of Majority-Minority reports; and a series of occasional papers by distinguished academics in the field of conflict. It has recently published a Register of Research on Northern Ireland which has been widely praised, and a termly news letter on current research called Research Briefing.

This new series of six research reports and papers on aspects of the Northern Ireland conflict represents the results of recent work as well as a reprint of an earlier work still much in demand.

It includes the extensive evaluation work of Colin Knox and his colleagues on the Community Relations and Local Government initiative, a major experiment in the promotion and encouragement of inter-community activity through the medium of district councils; a ground-breaking report by Valerie Morgan and Grace Fraser (carried out in association with the Centre for Research on Women) called The Company We Keep: Women, Community and Organisations, on the role and influence and cross-community activities of women in small towns and rural communities; the first in a new series of reports on the concept and experience of alienation, called Protestant Alienation in Northern Ireland; the most recent Majority-Minority report (joining earlier reports on education and on employment/unemployment) this one by Martin Melaugh on Housing and Religion in Northern Ireland; a paper by Ed Cairns on Psychology and the Northern Ireland Conflict, one in the series of occasional papers written by distinguished scholars. Finally, a reprint of the much discussed report by Duncan Morrow and his colleagues on The Churches and Intercommunity Relationships first published in 1991.

A second new series of reports will be published in July 1994 on topics such as Geographical Segregation, Education for Mutual Understanding, Disability, Community Development and Peace Education.

Seamus Dunn
May 1994.

publication contents



The Churches and Inter-community relationships project arose out of consultations between the Centre for the Study of Conflict in the University of Ulster at Coleraine and the Department of Education Northern Ireland (DENI). The aim of the project was to study the role of the Churches in the twenty years of violence in Northern Ireland. Three academics, Derek Birrell (Social Administration and Policy), John Greer (Education) and Terry 0' Keeffe (Philosophy and Politics) became the directors of this project and negotiated with the Department. In July 1987 a Research Officer, Duncan Morrow, was appointed to research the theme.


The general objective of the project was an examination of the place of the Churches in Northern Ireland society. Within this broad framework, we had a number of concrete goals. The first was to ascertain the degree to which the Churches were still important foci of personal and community life in Northern Ireland. Secondly, the nature of the connection between religion and secular aspects of life in Northern Ireland was to be examined. Thirdly, we wished to try to understand the relationship of Churches to each other and to compare inter-Church relations to other aspects of community relations and to understand the impact of the one on the other. In particular the relationship of Churches to social and political conflict was to be examined and the findings made as a contribution to our understanding of the complex dynamics and inter-relationships of society in Northern Ireland.

The research was carried out using two different approaches. The first was a questionnaire of clergy which would concentrate on the Churches and their involvement in the provision of formal community and social facilities in Northern Ireland. In this way we were able to address the breadth of church institutional and personal involvement in the minutiae of northern Irish life. The questionnaire was also intended to highlight areas of inter-community interest and activity within and between the Churches and to begin to assess the limits and possibilities of inter-community relations within Church structures.

The second part of the project was three case studies designed to reflect the range of circumstances in different parts of the province, east and west of the River Bann and in urban and rural settings. Furthermore, case studies enabled an examination of the variety of different approaches to ostensibly similar problems in different settings, of the variety of problems facing different people in different parts of the province, as well as allowing an assessment of the depth of Church involvement in community life in different places.

Through this combination we hoped to gain a more accurate picture of the breadth and depth of 'The Churches' contribution to Northern Ireland life and thereby to examine the place of organised religion in society and in inter-community relationships on an informed basis.

At an early stage we decided to restrict the survey to the four largest denominations in Northern Ireland; Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist. While we were aware that this was already restrictive, the combined membership or association with these Churches makes up over 90% of the Northern Irish population. In the case studies, we again concentrated primarily on the relationships between these denominations. Nevertheless, in each case, local circumstances meant that other denominations and groups were also considered.

We sought the agreement of the appropriate bodies in each of the four Churches to carry out this work. The various dioceses and boards were all encouraging in this matter. This made possible a research project which is firmly based in both communities in Northern Ireland and allowed for comparisons to be made and differences to be examined.

There are numerous possible approaches to the Churches and their involvement in community work. It is therefore important to acknowledge that we were unable to tackle some aspects. At one stage we intended to examine the community work of the Churches through a study of the Church institutions of each of the denominations. Examples of these include the Presbyterian Board of Social Witness, Down & Connor Family Welfare society and so on. Because of the specifically inter-community focus of this project it was thought that the Churches Central Committee for Community Work might be an appropriate body through which to examine joint approaches between the Churches. In furtherance of this and in order to establish contact and context for the research, interviews and conversations were arranged with representatives and employees of some of the appropriate organisations. Everyone was very obliging in this regard and many were very open in their comments. Eventually, however, we decided not to pursue this aspect of Church life because, although it provided valuable background, it became apparent that the central approach was too general and that the inter-Church dimension of work at this level was extremely weak. The CCCCW proved to be an organisation without teeth and with little concrete backing from the Church institutions. The staff were very open in their acknowledgement of the serious difficulties and limitations of the organisation. We decided to concentrate our research elsewhere.

The advantage of this project was that it was undertaken in an inter-community context allowing all denominations to come under one searchlight. It is hoped that the project demystifies some of the relationships between religion and secular life and the relationship of religion to community conflict.


Work on the Churches and their place in Northern Irish life remains sparse. We can suggest a number of reasons for this. Secular Social Science in Britain and Ireland has tended to be dominated by an outlook in which the Churches are either small minority remnants or institutions which reflect a kind of social backwardness. At its worst religion is equivalent to obscurantism and superstition. In this context religion, particularly in its organised form, is a strange and difficult territory, easier to dismiss than to explore. The obsessive religiosity of the Irish is at best embarrassing and at worst dangerous. It is worth pointing out that in this respect England itself differs from other cultures, such as German, Polish, Italian, Russian, North and Latin American, South African, Middle Eastern and Asian political and social cultures. In these places, questions of religion and the Churches, both in general and in particular, remain central to philosophical, political and communal discourse and organisation. Even for those who are firmly outside religious bodies the debates posed by the doctrines and beliefs of these bodies are included in their frame of reference. Thus the examination of Irish religion from within an English framework is always likely to be particularly distorted, especially with regard to religion. When Steve Bruce argued that 'The Northern Ireland Conflict is a religious conflict1 he found himself in a minority of one among sociologists.

For us, however, the question can never be whether religion is important. Instead, the question is how and in what ways is religion important. In this respect the political debate on Northern Ireland by those who have no place for this discussion always misses a crucial dimension. Part of the task of this project was to establish the degree to which, in Northern Ireland, the boundaries between the secular and the religious are clear-cut. The extent to which Church institutions provide the context for social life and the extent to which the Churches are involved in so many aspects of life means that they cannot simply be dismissed. In our questionnaire it became apparent that the Churches are not just general labels attached inaccurately to political parties but also the context of the apparently minute aspects of cultural life. From Mother and Toddler groups to political activities, the Churches are somehow involved.

There are some problems in a simplistic secular perspective on religion, especially in the analysis of Christian religion in Western society. Often secular observers appear to begin their analyses from the premise that Churches are small subgroups which emerged within a wider society. 'The Churches' are like 'the Trade Unions' or 'the bourgeoisie' only smaller and less important.

In Ireland the first challenge to this way of looking at things is size. The Churches are not smaller than the other social bodies and by sheer weight of numbers demand a more respectful hearing. Secondly such social science is in danger of inverting the historical order of events. Modern Society retains roots in Christendom, even if the description 'post-Christian' is now more accurate for much of Britain. Of course, the Churches retain a more explicit link to that history than do other groups which dominate the modern social agenda. Nevertheless, Church members have lived through these changes simultaneously with non-Church members. As such the Churches are not a separable sub-group which have 'arisen' out of modernity, like Trade Unions. Rather, the various strands of modern secular society have 'arisen' out of a Church-based past. This means that Church people are likely also to be involved in many aspects of secular life and that they cannot be reduced to a sect with clear boundaries defined by secular categories of class or organisation or gender or age. Where the Churches are large in size, this point is obvious.

'The Churches' are not simple institutions with members whose members change their hats in other parts of life. They are also communities of people whose whole lives are lived in the light of their Church experiences and knowing. Thus when they are in the workplace, in pubs, bringing up children, or whatever they may remain partly in Church. This makes the designation of simple lines, divisions between the secular and the religious completely misleading. In Northern Ireland this is immediately clear. It is not less true in secular England. It is less obvious.

The common roots of western society in Christendom means that absolute categorisation of the Churches by social science is likely to be difficult. Furthermore, the Churches do not reflect the finality of secular categories just as secular observers reject the judgements of the Church. To examine the Churches without an acknowledgement of some common heritage will always assume that the observer can stand outside the Churches separating them as a strange sect or as a subgroup to which the observer has no relation. In a Northern Irish context the difficulties of simple division become apparent very quickly. Men on Belfast's Shankhill Road may no longer go to Church. Instead they meet in clubs and pubs and in the orange order. Despite this, they continue to live in a society that was shaped by relations between communities in which religion was crucial. 'Religious', 'Christian' or not, their predicament cannot be understood without some understanding of the relationships between the Churches.

Within their jurisdiction, States claim ultimate authority. In the final analysis, the supreme authority of the State is undermined by claims made to a higher authority. Explicitly or implicitly, the State has to make a religious claim to authority. The claim to 'divine right' is therefore not very different to a claim to the 'nation' or 'the people' except that secular language is used. In this sense, the claims of the secular State or of a particular set of humanistic ideals are just as 'religious' as the claims of Christianity. The problems arise when groups deny the authority of the State on the basis of a different but higher authority, be it God, the nation, the people or whatever.

The problem with religious wars is that they are waged in the name of an ultimate authority. The combination of violence and 'sacred cause' is therefore very potent. Again, the cause need not be explicitly 'religious' to exhibit these traits, and in our own time nationalism and the claims of a class to ultimate authority have been the most obvious such secular causes. The potential of the call of the nation has been obvious since the French Revolution and brought to an ugly nadir in the quasi-religious ideology of German Nazism.

Where a secular religion such as nationalism combines with a religion which claims universal transcendence, the potential for violence is immense. The nation is raised into a sacred cause for both man and God. A national-religious war can be pursued with ferocity by people of immensely different conscious motivations. Religion becomes a system which gives a higher justification for the national war, indeed gives it an authoritative stamp of approval. Deeply secular people find themselves following religious leaders for reasons of their own defence.

It is extremely difficult to abolish dissenting religious claims through State violence. Religious dissent in the Eastern Bloc, Jewish persecution through ten centuries, the Irish Penal laws, the Polish crisis, the rise of the Ayatollah in Iran all illustrate the difficulty of using violence to purge religious dissent. Precisely because the claims of the religious group are held to have an ultimate authority, persecution tends to reinforce the determination of the group to 'hold out'. In Ireland, the Penal Laws had the effect of binding Catholicism to the Irish experience, while attacks on Protestants from a church-dominated opponent, over which Britain has appeared to equivocate have made Protestantism important to a sense of difference in Ulster's majority.

In the modern State, the field of education has been the most obvious battleground between the State and religion. The question of 'what to teach' and how to fund it have become central. In many settings, language has been the crucial issue at stake. In other places, religion has been crucial. Multi-religious or multi-language states are faced with serious problems in this regard. Different solutions have been found in different countries. In the West, some countries, such as Germany and Holland, have allowed denominational religious education in schools while others, such as France or USA, have outlawed it, except in private, fee-paying schools. It is clear to many Muslims that secular education does not teach what they wish. Christian fundamentalists in America, Catholics in Ulster and Muslims in Bradford share the same perception. What is slower to become clear is that the curriculum of a single integrating State system is therefore 'religious' in the sense that it claims an absolute validity. The Churches in Northern Ireland are interwoven into the social fabric of the community. Even among those who do not go to Church, the language of religious identity is not very distant. As such, religious identity has had a more consistent appeal than identities of class or gender. Indeed religious tradition remains the most consistent guide to political outlook. This is not to say that the conflict is about theology. Religion has always been more important than theology in the experience of difference in Ulster. What the Churches do in a conflict divided by religious traditions is, however, important. What is certain is that the relationship of culture, politics, society and religion cannot be simplistically resolved by ignoring the Churches on the basis that they are 'epicentral' to the main issues of the conflict.

Even in Northern Ireland, academic work on the Churches has been sporadic. Frank Wright's important work2 established the link between Protestantism and the ideology of Unionism. John Hickey3 tried to show that any explanation of the Northern Irish problem which did not take into account the religious dimension fell short. Although he did not provide a comprehensive theory of the nature of the relationship of religion to other aspects of Northern Ireland life he demonstrated that religion could not be bypassed. Steve Bruce4 argued that Free Presbyterianism and its self-understanding are crucial to any understanding of the Democratic Unionist Party both in terms of ideology and in terms of practice. The political importance of Ian Paisley alone, which reached its zenith in the 1983 European Election, ensures that this phenomenon is no footnote in Northern Irish history or experience. It will be part of this study to examine this relationship of religion to politics in relation to the larger Churches in Northern Ireland. Within the Churches numerous groups have sought to outline their position. All Churches have commented through the years on aspects of the violence and their response. There have been a number of important works on the relationship of the Churches to violence5. Bishops regularly make statements on political and social affairs while the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church has produced annual statements6. Recently a number of smaller unofficial groups have made headlines, particularly 'An Inter-faith Group on Faith and Politics' who have produced numerous challenging documents7 which comment on the political, social and religious present and future.


We looked at the Churches in two specific ways. First, through a survey of clergy and secondly through a number of case studies which were to reflect some of the diverse circumstances of Church life in Northern Ireland. The methods adopted in the survey are detailed in Section Two. It is necessary, however to say a word or two about the methods adopted during the case studies.

The field studies took place during 1988 and 1989. Each of the studies lasted approximately four months, including the time necessary to record and edit material. Direct field work lasted for about three months in each case. This is, of course, an absurdly short time in which to examine the depths of Church life in any area. We were very fortunate that people were generally friendly and open to discussion in each place.

The goal of the case studies was to present a series of 'pictures of some of the dimensions of Church life. As such, the case studies were to add a qualitative rather than quantitative dimension. They were to complement the formal framework of a questionnaire and by illustrating some of the human dimensions of the Churches in Northern Ireland they were intended to 'put flesh on the bones' of other analyses. From an early stage it was clear that any study of the Churches and inter-community relationships would have to locate the Churches within the relationships of 'their own' communities first. Most of the study time was therefore taken up in identifying relationships between the Churches and other secular groups.

The bulk of the fieldwork was a combination of participant observation and in-depth interviews. Where it was appropriate or possible, written sources were also consulted. Because of the pressures of time, it was necessary to ensure that interviews with key figures in the local community took priority. These included professionals, such as clergy and school teachers, and local community activists such as those engaged in Church or secular programmes for each area, such as ACE schemes, family work or youth clubs and important social and political organisations within each area, whether official or unofficial. Broadly speaking, these people provided the main framework from which to gauge the dimensions of the Church involvement in local life. To this core, we also added discussions with people identified locally as 'authorities' on the history and development of their areas.

Secondly, we spent a long time building up relationships of trust in less formal settings such as Family Centres, Mother and Toddler Groups, Old People's entertainment' s, ACE schemes, Youth clubs and so on. This provided the framework for a broad understanding of Church work within the wider local context as well as counterbalancing the reliance on professional opinion. In informal settings, people expressed a variety of views and experiences of local life. In many cases this resulted in formal interviews.

Thirdly, it was essential that people both within and outside the Churches were represented in each area. As a result, towards the end of the research in each area, spokespeople for specific views which were not yet reflected in recorded form but were everpresent in informal discussion were sought out.

Fourthly, the fieldwork had to include people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Our case studies were chosen to reflect geographical differences, rural and urban settings and wide class variations. We were careful to ensure that both women and men were properly represented, that we spoke with people of different age groups and that people of all political and religious persuasions were part of the work. In each area efforts were made to ensure that all these factors were taken into account. If there are biases in the results they are probably the result of unequal access to clergy vis a vis lay people which slant the analysis towards an over-reliance on this group.

In every case, longer individual contributions were recorded by hand and sometimes by cassette. This was always agreed in advance with each person and the rules of confidentiality clarified. The written records complemented personal observation through informal groups and Church attendance.

It was impossible to embark on a door to door approach in any area. A number of important reasons can be advanced for this. In the first place, qualitative sterility. Religion and politics are difficult subjects in Northern Ireland. We found it necessary to ensure that everybody was relaxed and free of fears before open discussion was possible. From an early stage we chose to concentrate on a smaller number of substantial discussions rather than a larger number of inflexible doorstep responses. Secondly, in the context of our work, what we were seeking from the case studies was an indication of the 'human dimension' of the Churches predicaments. It was therefore important to allow the interviewees the maximum possible freedom to describe and reflect on their life and work in their own manner. Uniformity was ensured by the consistent goals of the fieldwork. It was deliberately not imposed in the form of a semi-structured interview whose content was decided in advance, in order to discover the real diversity in each situation. Thirdly, time imposed its own constraints on the work which made any satisfactory saturation project impossible.

The case studies are suggestive rather than definitive. They do, however, claim to be a record of the broad range of discussions in which the Churches are involved in each area as related by a wide variety of people in their own words. In writing the report, we felt that it was important to begin from these views. As a result we have made widespread use of quotation from these interviews in the report.

In writing the reports, we decided on a policy of anonymity. As a result we changed most of the placenames. We have taken this decision in order that nobody should be unnecessarily exposed to difficulties.

The case studies ensure that general analyses are firmly rooted in empirical reality and allow theoretical generalisations to be clarified in concrete situations. They allowed us to examine relationships from the viewpoint and experience of those who live within them. They enabled us to assess the context in which changes might occur and discuss how any changes might occur on a better-informed basis.

Final Remarks

One of the problems of a report such as this is that it attempts to address the interests of a wide variety of people. This particular report is written with a number of different audiences in mind. In the first instance, we had to meet the contractual demands of our funders. At the same time, the report is addressed to people within the Churches in Northern Ireland, to academics interested in politics and society in Northern Ireland, to those interested in the importance of organised religion both at home and abroad and to a wider audience of Northern Irish people who are interested in learning more about the workings of their society. It is hoped that the multiplicity of audiences does not result in total confusion. For readers outside Northern Ireland, a short glossary of terms has been added to enable culturally specific usages (such as P1, P2) to be more easily understood.

Our project focused on the Churches in relation to Catholic-Protestant, Unionist-Nationalist, divisions. In so doing, we have attempted to reflect a wide variety of circumstances throughout the province. This is not an exhaustive analysis of the Churches in Northern Ireland. Although the project raised many issues, the question of theology and politics, religion and social class and Church attendance were always subsidiary to our primary focus on inter-community relationships. There is much work to be done in these areas.

This project is a contribution to a deeper understanding of the relationship of the Churches and religion to life in Northern Ireland. As such, we hope to illustrate the breadth of Church involvement from the level of the social and political structures to the seemingly mundane. Even here it is by no means exhaustive. It is our hope that we have provided an insight into some of the difficulties in making simplistic judgements or providing easy solutions in a situation where everybody appears caught in a predicament of fear and violence, while at the same time providing examples of possible futures.

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1 Steve Bruce: "The Northern Ireland Conflict is a religious conflict'

2 Frank Wright: "Protestant Ideology and Politics in Ulster", European Journal of Sociology, vol. xiv, no.2 1973, pp. 213-80
Frank Wright: "The Reconciliation of memories", in 'Northern Ireland - a challenge to theology', Centre for Theology and Public Issues, 1987, Edinburgh pp

3 John Hickey: "Religion and the Northern Ireland Problem", Gill and Macmillan. 1984

4 Steve Bruce: "God save Ulster", Oxford University Press, 1987

5 Eric Gallagher and Stanley Worrall: "Christians in Ulster 1968-82" Oxford University Press, 1982
Robin Boyd: "Ireland: Christianity discredited or Pilgrim's Progress" WCC, Risk Books Geneva 1987

6 The Northern Ireland situation" Church Statements 1968-1986, Presbyterian Church in Ireland Bishops Submission, New Ireland Forum Report Vol. XII, 1983

7 "Living the Kingdom", An inter-faith group on Faith and Politics, Belfast, 1988

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