The terrorists have not been waving Bibles or rosaries as they plant their bombs or shoot their victims. BUT to maintain that religion is a cloak for a struggle over constitutional allegiance is to simplify a complex and dynamic relationship. It also implies a narrow conception of politics. In its broadest sense, politics embraces the ideologies which dominate or criticise any society. It is a myth that ideas do not profoundly influence actions. In suggesting that the world is indeed ruled by ideas, Keynes pointed to the so-called 'practical' men who believe themselves to be exempt from intellectual influences but who are in reality 'the slaves of some defunct economist’. In Ulster, the enslaved is to two defunct brands of Christianity.
"The Northern Ireland conflict is a religious conflict. Economic and social considerations are also crucial, but it was the fact that the competing populations in Ireland adhered and still adhere to competing religious traditions which has given the conflict its enduring and intractable quality" ‑ Steve Bruce: God Save Ulster, Oxford, 1986, p249
To say that the Ulster Problem is not about religion since people are not killing over theological doctrine is to make at least three false assumptions:
· It assumes that the Problem is only confined to those who do the killing. But if the fighting is related to the disagreements and divisions in society, as it surely is, then it has to be explained in terms of the issues which divide the two communities. And doctrinal differences are bound to be relevant because they determine the nature of these two communities i.e. Protestants and Catholics.
"Politics in the North is not politics exploiting religion. That is far too simple an explanation: it is one which trips readily off the tongue of commentators who are used to a cultural style in which the politically pragmatic is the normal way of conducting affairs and all other considerations are put to its use. In the case of Northern Ireland the relationship is much more complex. It is more a question of religion inspiring politics titan of politics making use of religion.
It is a situation more akin to the first half of seventeenth ‑century England than to the last quarter of twentieth century
Britain" ‑ John Hickey: Religion and the Northern Ireland Problem, Gill and Macmillan, 1984, p67)
· The reasons for the killing offered by the participants and their supporters may not be the true reasons. The fact that they are rarely expressed in overtly religious terms does not render religion irrelevant. For we do not have to accept their explanations of what they are doing. There may be underlying causes of their actions which they fail to discern. The IRA man who says he is killing for age‑old republican ideals is no behaving in accordance with the republicanism of Wolfe Tone but instead following a more modern myth of nationalism which is essentially religious in character. It is a sacral nationalism descended from the spiritual vision of Patrick Pearse and is essentially Catholic in character. So, without being aware of it he has transferred his Catholic beliefs and traditions into a political language.
· Above all, the fallacy assumes that a religious war can only be waged over subtle theological arguments. What is overlooked here is that these doctrinal differences ‑ which are certainly real enough for those who think about them ~ have also political, social, economic and cultural implications which may deeply affect the whole community. In short, religion is not merely a theology; it is also an ideology ‑ a whole way of life and thought, whose concepts and assumptions are diffused throughout the society of believers, informing their morals, customs, political principles, social relations and attitudes to believers of differing ideologies. It is in this sense more than any other that there is no escape from the religious dimension of the Ulster Problem.
How is Religion politicised?
The Catholic strand of Christianity has been a strong and enduring force in Ireland since the arrival of Christianity on the island in the 5th century AD. Paganism was destroyed much more easily than in Britain ‑ Ireland was the only country in Western Europe whose conversion produced no martyrs. Another peculiarity of the early Irish church was that the typical religious centre was the monastery rather than the episcopal see. The monks and friars were poor, scholarly and evangelical and these features were crucial in the survival of the Catholic faith.
It is therefore not difficult to see why the Reformation failed in Ireland. The general backwardness of the lay people and the absence of a university meant that there was no critical atmosphere in the 16th century to challenge the position of the Church. It in turn was not rich enough to stir the anger of an Erasmus or a Luther or to arouse the jealousy of the nobles that was common elsewhere. Also, a nascent national sentiment was being identified with the cause of Catholicism.
"The often uneasy, but remarkably durable, blending of religion and nationalism, was an affair of Catholics" Conor Cruise O'Brien: Ancestral Voices,, Poolbeg Press, 1994, p17
Nevertheless it remained basically a Gaelic Catholic Church until the 19th century and the growth of modern Irish nationalism. The Church played a prominent role in Daniel O'Connell's Repeal movement, O'Connell himself admitting that to win the people over it was necessary to have the priests on his side.
This union of nationalism and Catholicism caused Thomas Davis to warn that "to mingle politics and religion in such a country is to blind men to their common secular interests, to How does religion divide the society? render political union impossible and national independence hopeless". But Davis's warning went unheeded, for as the century progressed, the Catholic clergy took leading parts in all aspects of the nationalist movement, providing the spiritual unity and organisational talent.
Modern Irish nationalism maintains this Catholic character. "Since Parnell, there has been no Protestant leader of Irish nationalism, nor has any Protestant, ever since, been admitted to the inner circles of Irish nationalism"(Conor Cruise O’Brien: Ancestral Voices, p29).
Contemporary Irish republicanism is descended from this tradition and, above all, from the ideology of Patrick Pearse. Pearse identified the Irish nation with Jesus Christ. Ireland was a crucified nation which would have its resurrection and redemption. He and his fellow nationalists would re‑enact the sacrifice of Christ, and thus redeem the nation as Christ redeemed the world. For the symbolism to be complete, the national crucifixion and resurrection had to take place at Easter. It is no coincidence that the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation were all Catholics, for the Easter Rising was the most exalted expression of Irish Catholic nationalism. Arguably, little has changed. The offensive of the Provisional IRA begun in 1971 is a Catholic and nationalist offensive, "not only (as claimed) against a British occupation but against a Protestant and unionist population in Northern Ireland" (O’Brien, op. cit. p4). It is essentially an Irish Catholic imperialist enterprise to force the Protestants of Northern Ireland into a United Ireland.
"The ancient quarrel is, of course, about power, and about its economic base as well as about its political manifestations. But such clichés can hardly satisfy us. If we ask further what are the ends for which the possession of power is coveted, we may perhaps come closer to the truth about Ulster. In that small and beautiful region different cultures have collided because each has a view of life which it deems to be threatened by its opponents and power is the means by which a particular view of life can be maintained against all rivals. These views of life are founded upon religion because this is a region where religion is still considered as a vital determinant of everything important in the human condition. And religion is vital because there have been in conflict three (latterly) two deeply conservative, strongly opinionated communities each of whose Churches still expresses what the members of these Churches believe to be the truth" F.S.L. Lyons: Culture and Anarchy in Ireland, 1984, p144
The dominant strand of Protestantism is the Puritan outlook. The settlers who came to Ulster from England and Scotland were seeking to establish in Ulster a society which reflected their predominantly Puritan values. One of these key values is a deep-seated hatred of the Catholic religion. As time progressed, they sought to maintain the link with a Protestant state rather than be subsumed into what they saw as a Catholic theocracy. That, ultimately, is the basis of their resistance to a United Ireland.
How does religion divide society
· The two dominant brands of Christianity are reactionary and inflexible. They are also utterly opposed and have refused to compromise with each other. They regard disputes about the Bible, the role of the Church, tradition, popes and priests, transubstantiation, sacraments and other rituals as more important than the so‑called Christian ethic.
· Politics in Northern Ireland is dogmatic, impassioned and uncompromising because the brands of Christianity which provide meaning to the lives of most people are themselves dogmatic, impassioned and uncompromising.
· The fruit of this sectarian divide is a system of social apartheid. The majority of Catholics and Protestants live in different areas, attend separate schools and clubs, play separate games and worship in separate churches.
· The sectarian division manifests itself in terrorism. The struggle between loyalism and republicanism is in no small part a politicised expression of the religious division in which the active participants are in reality fighting a Holy War on behalf of their opposing religious ideologies. They are the unwitting slaves of defunct theological ideas.
· The Troubles of the last 25 years have put the Christian churches firmly to the test. And they have failed for the same reasons that they have failed for nearly 400 years. They have refused to examine and civilise the nature of their own beliefs. They have persistently placed their own power and influence above real and risky attempts to reconcile the people. Above all, they have failed because in willfully pursuing their own tribal deities and rituals they have made a mockery of the loving ethic which is allegedly the basis of their faith. They can never save Ulster because they heart the heart of its Problem. *
"If the characteristic mark of a healthy Christianity be to unite its members by a bond of fraternity and love, then there is no country where Christianity has more completely failed than Ireland” W.E.H. Lecky