Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster
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‘The Churches’ are central to Northern Irish life, both historically and in the present. Attempts to ignore or bypass them will always founder on the reality of stubborn belonging which has characterised Protestants and Catholics. But this is not to say that the Northern Irish conflict is religious’ in a simplistic sense. In the sense of doctrinal holy war it is not. In another more profound sense, the churches are integral to the experiences and understanding of people in Northern Ireland. They are places and groups which channel, shape and direct the experiences of life in Northern Ireland. Of course this reality cannot be separated from experiences outside the churches in economic, social and political life and in family and community structures. Nevertheless the relationship of church and religious experience to these other aspects is an organic one in which one relates to the other in a web which cannot be reduced to one of its parts. Analyses which ignore this web of human experience by insisting on the centrality or primacy of one part over another part will always end up driving out the aspects of life which cannot be fitted into the ideology or theory. Religion, demoted to superstition in the vocabulary of the ‘enlightened’ elite, is an early casualty.
Ultimately the churches are integral to the identities of who belongs to ‘us’ and who belongs to ‘them’, the division which continues to dominate much of public life in Northern Ireland. In that sense too the institutional churches are part of the power conflicts which dominate and divide Northern Ireland past and present.
‘Socialisation’ is not sufficient as a description of this experience. The person ‘becomes’ in the course of these experiences, changing and being shaped by life. The reality of evangelical changes in people’s lives cannot be ‘denied’. The explanations which are provided can be challenged but the experience cannot be dismissed if we are seeking to be scientific. One person’s religious experience does not simply or only mirror society but contributes to it. Churches are part of the shaping of person and society in Northern Ireland. In other words not only people are ‘socialised’ but society too is made what it becomes. The term ‘culture’, favoured by anthropology, has both personal and societal dimensions and intimates the dialectical relationship between the two.
For this reason ‘The Church’, let alone ‘The Churches’, is always elusive if we try to confine it to ‘Institutions’ or if we imply that their sole importance is ‘personal’. Both interpretations fail to grasp the essential ‘Both ... and’ quality inherent in the churches claim as social organisers and guardians of a reality which transcends all social institutions and penetrates into every institution and person.
The churches in Northern Ireland are the oldest indigenous social institutions in the land and they are communities of people where values are passed on, friends are made, community is experienced and times of supreme personal and societal importance - baptism, first communion, marriage and burials - are shared. Even for those, mainly Protestant, who no longer maintain any active link to a church or to belief, the churches are pervasively present and important. Identity remains most accurately gauged by denomination. Friendship, marriage, residence and school remain stubbornly loyal to religious barriers. Whether religious or non-religious, Protestants share the same fears. ‘The enemy’ is common and in the ghettos which ensue the presence or absence of certain churches is the most tangible symbol of difference apart from the colours of kerbstones and slogans.
Of course the Northern Irish conflict cannot be reduced to an inter-church war any more than Irish culture can be reduced to folk music or Protestant culture reduced to flute bands. In this view, the concept of ‘Culture’ must be more universal. The Churches are central to culture in Northern Ireland, to the shape and forms our lives take whether we are or are not believers. Like music and the presence or (official) absence of contraception they are clear markers of difference, a difference in whose wake everybody lives.
Violence which drives the groups apart unites those being attacked in a defensive alliance. Differences within groups are denied or repressed when attack is most acute. Thus religiosity or lack of it is a subordinate issue where the matter of common survival is at stake. Of course, paradoxically, the appearance of difference is complemented by the growing reality that everybody’s lives are more and more the same - lived in the shadow of fear and murder to a greater or lesser extent. Fear and violence seem to make everybody the same.
In this context, the Churches in Ireland cannot be overlooked. Historically, colonial domination in Ireland was most acutely applied in the sphere of religion. The Penal Laws discriminated in public life on grounds of religion. Elsewhere in Europe, colonising powers discriminated against particular groups on the basis of language. In Ireland, anti-Catholicism became synonymous with anti-Irishness. Thus political and social economic difference was expressed in denominations and cultural and personal experience was shaped in this light. The eruption of violence between these groups, understandably understood by the rebels as a socioeconomic and political struggle, was and is experienced by Protestants as murder and rebellion which requires a defensive response, or more security. This in turn sets up further alienation in the Catholic community creating more violence and more response. Even more, fear and violence ensure that people in both groups try to ensure that every possible risk is avoided. Who constitutes a ‘risk’ is defined by their community of origin. The cleavage of religious origin marks the best indicator.
This cleavage over religious roots sets up two semi-autonomous worlds, symbolically attached to each other. The presence or absence of threat and/or violence in relationships now structures the experience of each community in two exclusive forms. For Catholics, violence exists in relation to the British State, to Unionist power and to Protestant paramilitaries. For Protestants violence exists in the IRA., Catholic theology, the threat of the Irish Republic and international misunderstanding. Each person may concentrate on particular aspects of the threat, and what is common is that there is this threat. Secure relations are now much easier to build within rather than between the experiences. Of course this means that each community becomes structurally similar but this similarity is never experienced. What is experienced is absolute opposition.
In this context the most important badge of difference is religion. The nature of church contacts at institutional level is determined by relations within each church. The ‘Both social and personal’ nature of churches means that while the churches are institutions they are also the people and the relations between them. Where people are under threat so the churches reflect that threat. In churches where the congregations choose the minister (e.g. Presbyterian) this may be particularly acute. Eventually those who come forward for professional jobs in the institutional churches (e.g. clergy) come out of these experiences also and the union is complete. Theology and politics come to be one. For Catholics this may be a theology of popular justice, for example liberation theology, which seeks to justify Catholic outrage as that of the people of God (the Poor?). For Protestants this may be a theology of siege which seeks to justify Protestant experience as that of the people of God (the Israelites?). Both give support, intellectual backing and faith to others whose theology may be weak but whose knowledge of violence and fear is strong. In general, however the church institutions have also sought to uphold the remains of social order in a period of social disintegration. This difficult task of seeking change and maintaining order has often led to them appearing to speak schizophrenically. The serious problem is that their is no agreement on who should change and how.
Churches are perfect refuges from siege. In the calmness of weekly service, in the wholeness of community life there is a respite from the siege and embattlement outside. Also in church membership is a guarantee that nobody belongs to ‘the enemy’. The group is united in their opposition to the enemy. More importantly, violence to a member or to a member’s family is here experienced as an attack on the group. Similarity within the group (i.e. the threat to all of us is confirmed) is matched by a magnified difference between the groups, a difference which is paradoxically similarity. In such an atmosphere those who equivocate are isolated and can be regarded as ‘weird’ or more sinisterly as ‘quislings’.
Churches are also perfect bases for claiming the moral high ground, for rallying the fainter-hearted to the flag. The Penal Laws experience is a classic example. Theologies which emphasise not only difference but superiority have fertile ground. A political centrality for the churches also beckons, not simply in the nature of politics but in the content. On the one hand, by becoming involved in the content of politics, theological fears of ‘priest-domination’ become factual. On the other, in the face of raw ‘fear and threat’ which are not articulated but nevertheless present, explanations which lead to a stiffening of resolve, a will to resist and defend have a ready audience.
a. The Protestant Churches and inter-community relationships
The Free Presbyterian Church remains and has remained a tiny minority among Protestants. Despite the proliferation of a number of large buildings throughout Northern Ireland the membership of the church is less than a tenth that of the Presbyterian Church and less than a quarter that of the Methodist Church. At the same time the Free Presbyterians personify the political face of Ulster protestantism. How does this come to be?
In our investigations we found that ‘protestantism’ is more easily defined in political terms than in theological terms. The unity on the evil of IRA violence lives side by side with great variation in theological outlooks. What violence has done is to turn those religious Protestants, who from religious reasons seek to secure protestantism by any means, into prophets and defenders rather than lunatics and extremists. For people outside Northern Ireland the appeal of Ian Paisley is difficult to understand. He is portrayed variously as a fanatic, a fascist, an ayatollah and a lunatic. For Protestants inside Northern Ireland he clearly has a different image unless we are to conclude that they all share these characteristics.
We also found that Church people react out of their situations much as non-church people. Where this leads people to seek religious reasons for their fate the dangerous combination of certainty and rightness raises its head and some at least view a response as holy war. The history of Ireland and Britain makes this combination relatively easy in Northern Ireland.
The churches in Ireland have a tradition of being part of the people. Unlike elsewhere the churches have retained an important social position. We have seen how this means that the churches have found it difficult to respond in a manner which marks the churches out as different to any other social institution. Indeed they are so close to the events that they are blamed for them in many quarters. This explains the persistent use of the word ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ as shorthand to describe the ‘sides’ in the political arena. The churches have certainly not been able to break this association.
In our survey we found that anti-Catholicism in theological terms was fairly widespread among Protestant clergy, especially Presbyterians. Many of the same people declared a willingness to work with Roman Catholics in ‘non-controversial’ spheres. Such a viewpoint poses problems in that it implies that protestantism is closer to God, to Truth than Catholicism in an absolute sense. This already makes relationships between people difficult. In the context of violence where people divide on religious lines in their attitudes to, for example, the security forces the religious superiority very quickly becomes social and personal mistrust leading to all of the symptoms we have observed.
Many Protestants have experienced at first hand the murder of their friends, relatives and colleagues. The besiegement of Ulster Protestants is a fact for many of the congregations and parishes of Ulster. As we have repeatedly shown, churches provide safe havens, anchors of security, identity and belonging from which the ‘enemy’ is excluded. Only ‘Us’ are in the church. In this context an attack on one by someone outside is experienced as an attack on our church membership. Churches are expected to provide comfort and sustenance in times of trial. This they do. Clergy and people experience the same part of reality. Most importantly, the collective bond is closer between church members than it is between ‘British People’ in Kent and in Dungannon. People in Kent and Dungannon simply do not have the same enemy, except perhaps after the successful IRA attack on soldiers in Deal. Mostly many Ulster Protestants experience violence against them but the same is not true of all British people. Ulster Protestants are therefore more reliable allies in the will to resist the onslaught than the British as a whole. Indeed as the British seem to distance themselves evermore from the experience of Ulster Protestants, so Ulster Protestants must rely ever more firmly on their own resources. Thus Protestantism becomes firmly mixed up with identity because it is the most coherent identity in the face of violence.
Of course this begs the question as to how avowedly non-religious people fit into such a scheme? What they share in common with the church goers is the sense of besiegement and violence. They too have been abandoned by Britain or at least recognise the increasing distance. The Protestant perspective, while never wholly believed, provides a coherent political body willing to fight to defend Ulster. This aspect ofprotestantism appeals to a beleaguered and angry people. Loyalism is thus careful to maintain its links with protestantism. It ensures a broad front of people opposed to the violence of the IRA and provides a coherent and determined intellectual basis for opposition.
Politically the ‘Protestant’ label is a flexible tool. It is supportive of the Union but allows for a ‘back-up clause’. If Britain fails then protestantism will continue to fight for Ulster against the IRA. Campaigns for an independent Ulster never gather sufficient support in themselves and yet integration into the United Kingdom as integral to England has never appeared likely or plausible. Protestantism has the advantage that it combines opposition to the IRA with a number of political alternatives. Hence it is grounded in self-confidence not dependent on British help. This means that Protestant opposition to Catholic power is a rock on which opposition to the IRA can be firmly based. Its political appeal in an uncertain context is obvious.
The most obvious gap is that protestantism is defined in terms of domestic politics rather than in terms of the churches. The churches as institutions have somewhere disappeared into oblivion. Protestantism becomes the experience of violence by Catholics and republicans as much as a faith and manner of living in all contexts. In order to understand this it is necessary to employ our distinction between the churches as institutions and the churches as people. The churches seem unable to extricate the faith of the church from the desire to defeat the IRA. A ‘United Ireland’ can be feared in political and religious form and the churches appear largely to allow this confusion to stand. In the context of regular murders the anger of congregations is also likely to mix up political and faith positions if the ‘IRA’ are seen as Catholic and evil.
The Presbyterian Church is the largest Protestant denomination. Like the Free Presbyterians, and before them, the Church claims to originate in the teachings of Calvin. Similarly both call upon the Westminster Confession of Faith as a central tenet, albeit with significant concessions for interpretation within the Presbyterian Church. Presbyterianism has a democratic structure with considerable autonomy for each congregation. The Church has a governing body, the General Assembly, which meets annually. Within the instructions of the General Assembly each congregation has considerable independence. We have seen that this means that congregations vary from place to place. From one congregation to the next the atmosphere, history and theology may vary considerably. This local freedom means that the church has an identity in its government but that many things may vary from place to place. Elsewhere in Europe, Calvinist and Reformed churches still oppose Rome but within a framework of recognising some common ground and areas of agreement. Nowhere has it meant the ending of the existence of reformed churches. Rather it means that religious denomination is no longer a reason for war.
The clear difference in Northern Ireland is the presence of considerable violence. In a context of increasing ghettoisation, continuing burials of colleagues and a clear sense of Protestant identity against catholicism violence the enemy comes to mean the IRA and the Catholic community. Increasing separation means that empathy breaks down between communities, bitterness grows and theologies which emphasise Protestant separateness have a willing audience. Indeed theologies which appear to suggest an openness, such as varieties of ecumenism, are identified with appeasement. The very decentralised nature of presbyterianism means that congregations call mihisters after their own image. Beleaguered congregations may call ministers who will bolster their resolve. Theologies which identify the experience of Protestants with that of the children of Israel, God’s chosen people, have a ready audience. Catholics who challenge security forces actions or bury members of the IRA are seen to be part of the attack on Protestants. Theological objections to Catholicism are reinforced in practice by the political actions of priests. The Catholic hierarchy becomes an insidious political force proved by its domination of the Irish Republic and their permanent presence in Catholic areas. Theological fears are backed up with empirical evidence. More and more young people from these real and theological experiences feel called to the ministry and the cycle continues. The result is a binding of minister, elders and congregation in a stand against ‘evil’. Less and less people have any experience of a more complex reality.
Of course this only reflects part of the Presbyterian experience. The last twenty years have seen the opening up of massive divisions within the Presbyterian Church. Many of the ecumenical ventures in Northern Ireland, e.g. Corrymeela, grew out of Presbyterian roots. At the same time our survey showed that Presbyterian clergy were by far the most likely to refuse any theological contact with Catholics. The result is a church which is institutionally large in which the institutional apparatus has no final authority. Any church ‘power’ always depends on the acceptance of the churches’ ‘authority’. Presbyterianism, more perhaps than any other denomination, seems unable to speak with one voice.
There are several implications of this. First Unionism and Protestantism continue to be closely identified now reinforced by the reality of violence. Violence calls forth deaths and the dead are buried by clergy. The death is remembered by the congregation as one of ‘their’ dead, always unjustified to some degree. In Presbyterianism this is particularly true for the security forces. The Minister is expected to proclaim the death unjustified. A series of attacks from the same source is liable to bring forth calls for the murderers to be stopped. In Northern Ireland these calls are directed at political sources. In Presbyterianism the calls are directed against the I.R.A., couched in terms of ‘more security’. This besiegement, so clear to minister and congregation has its political expression in Unionism. The interplay of history, violence, experience and justification all serve to defend the besieged.
Any resolution by the General Assembly in just about any sphere will always be hedged around with large levels of dissent. A policy’ on inter-community relations which the General Assembly adopts is likely to have very differential effects. The Church continues to exist as an institution but the reality of this church is likely to be different in different places. Attempts by the General Assembly to comment on the political situation expose division. The church institution is powerless to stop itself being taken over by congregational experience. The ‘Presbyterian Church’ as institution becomes identified by default with the response to violence. This happens most acutely at funerals not in the General Assembly. The political place of the church as defender and comforter is magnified with every death. Other strands of theological thinking are more submerged and the fear and anger expressed at funerals comes to dominate. The political hatred of the IRA seems to have a church counterpart. Any contact with contaminated bodies (e.g. the World Council of Churches, the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland) becomes suspicious.
The size of the gap between the Church as an institution and its ability to influence its members contrasts sharply with the Free Presbyterian Church. Unlike the mainline churches the Free Presbyterians are able to produce a uniform ‘party line’ on anti-Catholicism and the implications in political terms. This in turn threatens to be an attractive alternative to Presbyterianism in the event of the Presbyterian Church failing to back up the Protestant experience. For Presbyterians this is a particular risk because of the claims on the roots of Calvin and the Westminster Confession as well as similarities in church government and cultural style. Thus Free Presbyterianism comes to exert a considerable influence on some Presbyterians despite attempts to draw distinctions. A Free Presbyterian jibe that the Presbyterians are no longer loyal to their Calvinistic roots seems to set up uncertainties in many minds especially given Paisley’s apparent ability as a prophet of the Protestant predicament.
Theology which sees in Roman Catholics only a mission field and in Roman Catholicism apostasy, never deeply buried in Ulster, is now widespread, respectable and influential. This means that future contact between Presbyterians and Catholics is also pre-empted except where conversion is central. In this view, Presbyterians who continue to seek relationships with Catholics are people who would appease the devil. Between the devil and Christ there can be no compromise. Translated into politics this has no end except the eternal fight of good and evil where even victory will be won only at the price of eternal vigilance. While this is the view only of a minority of Presbyterians, in the context of violence any refusal to meet the other on an equal basis is read or can be read as part of the conflict. Thus the refusal of Ministers to meet priests orof Presbyterians to meet Catholics has political ramifications which are hard to separate from theological considerations. Effectively Roman Catholics are ‘unclean’. The experience of violence confirms this and allows those who wish to avoid theological contamination social licence to do so. The social status of the clergy in rural towns means that this has massive social and political implications. Political and theological protestantism are now very often the same.
The result is that the Presbyterian Church cannot separate itself from the Protestant experience of violence. It constantly speaks to and from this experience. Once it does this it is no longer any different from the Free Presbyterian Church unless a clear distinction can be drawn between Free Presbyterian and Presbyterian political attitudes or interpretations of the gospels. This not being the case, the Free Presbyterians often appear to be more coherent Presbyterians. The institutional weakness of the Presbyterian Church means that its statements are likely to be weakly oppositional to the Free Presbyterians (so as not to offend sympathisers) or weakly supportive (so that Free Presbyterian statements are clearer and more politically coherent.) The result is the worst of all possible worlds for the Presbyterian Church. The church is now enmeshed in the political conflict and the largest Protestant church is powerless to act as an institution in the situation. Conversely, religion can now be blamed for the conflict and the Presbyterian Church cannot act to stop this.
The other Protestant denominations do not exhibit quite the same level of crisis. Various interpretations can be advanced for this. In the case of the Church of Ireland, the Church has never been identified with ‘Ulster’ to the same degree as the Presbyterians. The ‘Irish’ and ‘British’ dimensions to the church past and present means that the Ulster experience is qualified. Secondly the hierarchical nature of the Church of Ireland means that local experience is always supplemented with the experience of the hierarchy who are close enough to have some authority and far enough to allow experiences to impinge on their reactions. The hierarchy are linked with the Anglican Communion. The Presbyterian Church has progressively cut its links with other bodies outside Northern Ireland. The essence of Presbyterianism lies in its congregational structure. The essence of Anglicanism is a broad church held together by an undogmatic hierarchy. In the context of radicalised congregations the Presbyterian General Assembly must bow. In the same circumstances, the hierarchy can act as a restraining influence. This may also mean however that the Church of Ireland leadership is no longer closely bound with its grassroots membership. We have seen evidence that public gestures by Bishops may not meet with universal approval from those further down the hierarchy. The Church of Ireland as an institution is also unable to ‘deliver’ apolitical unanimity on inter-community relationships. What is possible is an appearance of greater cohesion. Thirdly, the Free Presbyterian threat is much more distant. Theologically, historically and conceptually there is very little overlap between the Church of Ireland and the Free Presbyterians. The Free Presbyterian claim to represent a ‘pure’ form of Christianity cuts little ice in Anglican circles. For them Paisley remains a political figure of limited theological importance. Indeed although the so called Anglo-Catholics are a small minority in Northern Ireland an awareness of this dimension of theological thinking within the Anglican communion may ensure a degree of separation in the political field.
The Church of Ireland has, like other Protestant denominations, also failed to draw any clear distinction between protestantism and unionism. It too is characterised by weak institutions and dominated by funeral orations. Violence has clearly emphasised the church as refuge and sanctuary. The church clearly plays a part in the community under siege. However, the doors are never as tightly shut for the Church of Ireland as for Presbyterians. The historically broad base of theology, the Irish dimension and the existence of hierarchy have kept the Church of Ireland active on the international stage at a time when most Presbyterians have withdrawn.
Methodism too has retained an Irish dimension to a greater degree than Presbyterianism. The Methodist Church is everywhere too small to be the numerical or political heart of Protestantism. Historically Methodism spread in a totally different manner to Presbyterianism or Anglicanism. Irish Methodism does not seem to be officially identified with political protestantism. In common with the Church of Ireland, there is theological difference between Methodists and Free Presbyterians. This is not to say that Methodism in Ulster has no connection to political protestantism but the structure and nature of that relationship is different to the Presbyterians or Church of Ireland. Traditional Methodist roots in the working classes mean that the Methodist church has maintained an active ‘social’ ministry. This has often been non-sectarian in character. We saw that social concern has remained an important strand of Methodism. The relatively small size of Methodist congregations may prevent the sense of ‘besiegement’ that seems to develop in Presbyterian and Church of Ireland circles. The policy of constant change of Ministers may also ensure that Methodist congregations remain open to outside influences from time to time. Of course the Methodist church is weak as a political institution. It is not a part of Methodism to be a political party. Methodists have not attempted to use ‘Methodism’ as a political philosophy and so the public profile of the Methodist Church is lower than the smaller Free Presbyterian Church. This does not mean that Methodism is irrelevant but that its importance is pervasive rather than apparent.
The most important external changes in Protestantism have been secularisation and the growth of smaller, mostly evangelical, churches and house groups. This disintegration of Church structures does not mean that ‘religion’ or even ‘the churches’ are irrelevant. It does seriously change the nature of the nature of what ‘Church’ is. The churches may become more disparate, more chaotic organisations paralysed from ‘doing’ anything except in small groups. Thus we can explain the paradox of huge social presence and paralysed central church institutions. Violence has everywhere had a differential effect. It has united some together in opposition to the enemy, it has sent others looking for an emotional experience of religion, it has alienated many from Christianity and it has led others to seek ways to work across denominational divides.
The denominations which all arose and developed in historical contexts shaped the structure of Northern Ireland society. The impact of violence has seemed to splinter the denominations. At the same time the churches have in places become places of close political and personal identity at local level. The Churches are called to interpret and minister to their congregations in this context. What precisely the ministry will be will depend less on denomination and more on the particular outlook, experience and history of each congregation or parish.
‘Denomination’ has become a poor guide to political or social position. One Presbyterian Church may be totally different to another. The Church of Ireland exhibits the same tendency. The Free Presbyterians are unique among the small churches in their claims to fulfil or interpret a political role in Ulster. Unlike the larger churches they are also effectively unanimous in their antipathy to Catholicism. This gives them a political weight which is far greater than their denominational strength and effectively cripples the Presbyterian Church as an institution.
The larger Protestant church institutions cannot guarantee that the response will be uniform among their congregations and parishes. A government looking for partners in inter-community relations policy will have to take this into account in the formulation of policy. Repeated calls for ‘The Churches’ to do something are probably too late and possibly concentrate time and effort in inappropriate areas. They may rest on an inadequate media-led image of the churches which wishes to turn them into identifiable political parties which can be understood as pawns or kings in a game of chess which is controlled by political factors. This is not to say that the churches should not act together. Rather it is to recognise that they cannot at present and that changes may happen at many levels. By concentrating on large institutions alone opportunities may be lost and an unwanted publicity given to the most politically coherent institution, the Free Presbyterian Church.
b. The Roman Catholic Church and Inter-community relationships
As we outlined, the Penal Laws and the colonial experience shaped much of the Catholic Irish identity. Unified by O’Connell in a national campaign for Catholic Emancipation, Pan-Catholicism has become synonymous for many Protestants with Irish Nationalism. The depth of Irish attachment to Catholicism is famous throughout Europe and Irish religious are scattered throughout the world. Furthermore, the Irish emigrants to the United States established their communal lives and identity around the construction of churches. This testifies to the cultural centrality of the church and has led to a high political and social profile for the hierarchy in Irish life.
As we have time and again confirmed, the Catholic Church in Northern Ireland is central to community identity and community life. The church is very well attended and virtually the entire community is baptised and has regular links to the church. There is as we saw considerable evidence that this may be changing among young people in Belfast though there is very little evidence of serious change outside the city. Experience of the Church is universal at some level in the ‘Catholic’ community. More, perhaps, than protestantism it is the universal glue of the community, an identifiable part of private and public life at many levels. Politically, the Catholic community looks in different directions republicans who justify political violence, nationalists who detest it and Catholic unionists. Two issues unite the bulk of the community Catholicism and violence.
The experience of violence in Catholic areas is fundamentally different to that of Protestants. Unlike Protestants, Catholics do not focus on the IRA in the same manner. The IRA, as we saw, are far from universally admired or respected. Indeed they are more often despised. Nevertheless IRA violence is seen in another context, particularly focused on the security forces; RUC, UDR and British Army. All three are widely regarded as ‘external’ to the community and as contributing to the growth of the IRA. Particularly in the city ghettos the security forces are seen as forces to harass and intimidate the local population.
The church in this context acts as the institution which continues to represent the population to the authorities. As we saw in Derry, this means that they act as advocates in cases of harassment, a task which does not occur in anything like the same proportions in Protestant areas. Thus at one and the same time the church can be portrayed as the State in nationalist communities and as refusing to put its back behind the forces of law in the battle against terrorism. This same double-bind re-occurs in various forms over schools, ACE schemes and issues such as the hunger strike. Furthermore, in the Protestant community the State relates directly to its citizens without institutional intermediaries. In the Catholic community the intermediary place of the church increases the institutional power and profile of the church. This gives the hierarchy a public profile as political actors which confirms to republicans that the church is a conservative agent which, as was claimed in one of our studies, works to secure the British Empire and at the same time confirms to Protestants that the Catholic Church is a huge political power, the real enemy behind the IRA. If you are looking for such evidence in a siege or in the context of a struggle for justice of which you are certain there is ample evidence for both. Ironically the Catholic Church is regarded then as the representative of both States in Northern Ireland. By Protestants it is regarded as the precursor of the Irish State. It is also seen as the real power. In places such as Derry where the local Catholic majority can exercise some limited political influence, the high profile of the Catholic Bishop is seen as evidence of this. Where nationalists gain power so the church takes over. At the same time local critics of the church in West Belfast regard the church as the agents of the British State in Northern Ireland for their refusal to back ACE schemes whose funding was curtailed under suspicion that they had paramilitary links. Both and neither would appear to be true, but the field for conspiracy is immense.
The violence has put serious strains on the institutional authority of the church. The spread of English-based metropolitan culture through television and radio has added to the strains on catholic perspectives. The result is an increasingly difficult situation, particularly in inner-city areas of Belfast and the peripheral housing estates. The church is also engaged in propaganda to stop the spread of modern ideas regarding divorce, birth control and abortion.
We found that the church is now part of serious local struggles in Belfast. The violence has had a very disruptive effect in the Catholic community. Policing is now effectively in the hands of local paramilitaries. Daily violence is common through car-theft, punishment shootings, intimidation and security force patrols. Public life in these areas is held together by common norms of behaviour between neighbours and a moral code which is most firmly stated by the church. The church is the centre of local opposition to Sinn Fein.
Government policy on the funding of community groups and the attitude of the Greater Belfast local councils has meant that many community groups are starved for statutory funds. This is based on suspicion that public money was buying weapons for the IRA or at least allowing paramilitaries to develop deep community roots and a higher local profile. Much of the alternative funding for these areas, among the poorest in statistical terms in the United Kingdom, has been channelled through the church. This is particularly true of the ACE schemes. The churches’ presence ensures that the money does not fall into paramilitary hands. At the same time it gives the church authorities considerable economic control in their areas, it concentrates high-ranking positions into clerical hands and it has polarised local attitudes to the church particularly among young people. The result is that the church authorities are seen to be ever more powerful and resentment of this control seems to be growing. Sinn Fein have managed to raise their profile locally as champions of the people’s groups and have won votes locally on such issues.
We also found disintegration on a number of other levels. First family break-up is now increasingly common in Catholic areas. Divorce has begun to be registered in schools. Secondly, church teaching on contraception and family planning is widely ignored in many urban areas. Thirdly the political and economic power of the church have led to well publicised attacks from local people such as Father Des Wilson who have accused the church of kow-towing to the British State. He has also sought to import some of the ideas of liberation theology and apply them to Catholic West Belfast. The result is an ambiguity on the violence of the IRA.
The implications of all this are difficult to assess. It is important to note that as the Protestant churches vary from place to place, so too the Catholic parishes are different. Outside Belfast we found much less evidence of any serious power struggle between the church and other groups. The ACE problem did not appear to be as acute. This was mostly because the church was widely accepted in a cultural sense as the moral authority in a manner which no longer applies in Belfast.
The Catholic Church is thus much more visible as an institution than the Protestant churches. The hierarchical structure of the church enables a more definite media image in the persons of Bishops and Cardinals than the Presbyterian or Methodist structures. This reinforces any Protestant fears that the church as an institution is to be feared. Control of schools, ACE schemes and many social services by the church may reinforce Protestant views. The modern media portrayal of ‘The Churches’ as the church leaders may also account for some of the misleading ideas of the actual nature of the church and the nature of church leadership. It also sharpens the view that a church is a political party. The situation becomes more complex again when the church authorities are actually granted temporal economic control, which allows the media image to exist against a background of some truth.
The Catholic Church has been most insistent that the Northern Irish conflict is not religious. This maybe true on one level and yet, as we have seen, some important people, mostly extreme Protestants, dispute this. For most Catholics the problem is one of injustice, a permanent state of second-class treatment in all spheres. It is apolitical, social and economic matter. In this context inter-church relations are important to show Christian charity and to underline that the church opposes the use of violence but they are not the core of the matter. Nevertheless the theologies of Irish Catholicism continue to display a considerable amount of the ‘superiority’ we noted in protestantism above.
A continuing claim on the superiority of the Catholic Eucharist must imply that the Catholic version is closer to ‘the Truth’ than various Protestant interpretations. The continuing pressure that children of a mixed marriage be brought up as Catholics is a further signal to Protestants that the Catholic Church is imperialist and regards them as inferior. Schools policy is also controversial. The church claims that it is important to protect a different ethos, ‘of love’, but continues to be extremely hostile to integration with Protestants. Finally many Catholic clergy still refer to ecumenism as the ‘return of the separated brethren’ and regard their institution as the visible form of ‘the one true church’. Together with the political, social and cultural authority now exercised by the priesthood, Protestant militants can easily construct a convincing case that ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’. All of this is certainly present in inter-community relationships in Northern Ireland.
Over the last twenty years, catholicism has also thrown up its own form of militancy in the form of types of liberation theology. Developed in the Latin American context as a theology for the poor, it has been translated into a theology which claims to fight for the poor in Northern Ireland. The poorest are identified with the Catholics of the ghettos and their struggle is said to be ‘just’. In some forms this then becomes an apologia for IRA violence. The justice of the cause justifies everything. In a sense it is the mirror of Protestant siege theology. ‘The poor’, an identified group, are justified everything because their cause is righteous. They are the true ‘children of God’. In siege theology as we saw, Protestants take the place of the poor. If siege theology provides a political justification for siege defence then this form of liberation theology provides a justification for besieging. Thus Protestant accusations that Catholicism is indifferent to the murder of Protestants are given renewed force. Any attempts to clamp down through security policy will reinforce the arguments for liberation theology. In fact they appear to be twins.
It must be stressed that liberation theology plays no part in official church statements. Indeed most of those who claim a link to liberation theology would be highly critical of the official church. Nevertheless its development is an important strand in the continuing interrelationship of religion and politics in Ireland. The church hierarchy have been more concerned to see the establishment of church approaches to family and personal life especially as the church authorities are seen to be ignored by large numbers of Catholics especially in the area of family planning.
Many Roman Catholic clergy, as we saw, are actively interested in extending the scope of their social activity. This reflects the poverty of many parishes in Northern Ireland and the high levels of unemployment. Once the ghettos have been established the issues of poverty and the related problems become the most urgent questions in daily life. As we saw in Belfast and Derry, Inter-community relations are considered relatively unimportant by many in comparison to unemployment. The daily violence on the estates combined with ‘ordinary’ parish work means that anybody working here is likely to get caught up in questions and have little time for inter-community relations. Most people in ghettos have developed lives which take little account of the existence of another community. This is of course true everywhere but in Northern Ireland this means the parallel development of antagonistic communities who oppose each other politically along these lines.
Ghettoisation means that inter-community relations have to be fostered by deliberate means with all the problems this entails. In the context of poverty the enthusiasm for such efforts may not be widely spread. Catholic areas of West Belfast fall into this category in a classical manner. The church is the only local agency which can focus such activity and it too is mostly active to preserve the fabric of daily life internal to the ghetto. In this context church attitudes to protestantism expressed in terms of theology, schools, human rights, violence and the constitutional status of Northern Ireland are all ‘political’. Of course churches in other places have attitudes to political matters but the different context of Northern Ireland gives such involvement a different dimension.
Catholicism is clearly political in a different way to protestantism. There are no leading politicians who stake their position on a defence of Catholicism. Nevertheless the Catholic Church has a much higher profile as a social, political and economic actor than the Protestant institutions who are content to hand over most of this activity to ‘their’ state. In this sense it has a political reality to be attacked in a far more concrete sense than protestantism. Thus those Protestants who fear catholicism can credibly claim a Catholic political goal. The existence of the Irish Republic with its 97% Catholic population ensures that Catholicism is shown to have political aims by looking across the border. How a State made up of so many Catholics might avoid reflecting Catholic teaching has not yet been explained.
Religion and the Churches thus have a crucial part to play in intercommunity relations but this cannot be forced. Policy and practice can only be successful if the change is desired.
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