Northern Ireland is one of the most religious countries in Europe, only surpassed by Poland and Malta. Religion by itself has shaped its most notorious traits for centuries, due to the long-distance conflict between the two different approaches to the same Christian religion.
Since the Plantation in the 17th century, groups of English Anglicans and especially Scottish Presbyterians colonized the island, staying as an alien community with control over the far numerous native Catholic populations. Due to this, Protestants have held a notion of being under constant siege, and since Good Friday Agreements, the fear of extinction; whereas Catholics have had a feeling that they are discriminated and regarded as second-class citizens.
Even if religion wasn’t the source of conflict, it has given the meaning of the overall system of community relationships and politics. Religion gives meaning to identity and community, just as much as other dimensions of social difference.
Then, it is no wonder that the churches of both sides, and individuals from the clergy, played a leading role on both reconciling differences, or making them worse. Religion, and therefore churches, is a place of both conflict and reconciliation.
Throughout the Troubles, churches and clerics articulated messages of peace and reconciliation, almost without exception. Violence was denounced from Catholic and Protestant pulpits, and with only few exceptions, clergy have not been involved in radical political movements. Whilst churches have sometimes been ambiguous about previous political settlements, the present period after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has seen unprecedented support for the political order. Even if it is internal clerical debate, statements tend to endorse many of the new political developments.
The main concern of all the churches was to locate themselves in the political mainstream of their respective communities, providing comfort, support and even political empathy for their members. The religious mainstream has been closely allied to the political mainstream in both communities, confirming mutually beneficial relationships. With clerical endorsements, Unionists and Nationalists have gained extra legitimacy, and the churches have benefited by the way in which they have seemed to have the finger on the pulse of the concerns of the communities they represent.
Churches are often included in processes of political consultation and negotiation. Sometimes they act as intermediaries between states, politicians and paramilitaries. Their influence is not usually one of critical policy input, but they are important, as they are perceived as respectable representatives of their community. The churches’ participation in political life gives them a significant degree of social influence and is thus self-perpetuating. But there is much popular distress from both Catholic and Protestant religious teachings. In Northern Ireland exists an official separation between churches and the state. Moreover, many politicians are anxious to distance themselves from religious ideas and institutions.
The Catholic Church has been much more than just an interest group to be consulted in nationalist politics. The Church has always been at the heart of the nationalist political mainstream, but has no parallel with Protestant clerical politicians. It is rare for priests to consciously promote party politics of one kind or another, but they have been consistent in their representations of the Catholic community. While their location in the political nationalist mainstream has given them a unique position from which to promote Catholic values, its support has lent added legitimacy to nationalist politics.
The involvement of Roman Catholicism in nationalist party politics in Northern Ireland is minimal. There is no tradition of the clerical-politician equivalent to that amongst Protestant. But even if the clergy do not use their position to promote either party, there are close and mutually beneficial relationships between the Church and political parties. When the Troubles broke out, the church was still the main important body in Catholic areas. Through the following decades, the bishops issued regular condemnations of both IRA activities and of Sinn Féin. Very few individual Catholic priests spoke out against the state. But despite this occasional criticism, the Church hierarchy and clergy were largely consistent in their condemnation of republicanism, and endorsed the moderate constitutional nationalism of the SDLP, since its establishment in 1970. The SDLP, however, have made efforts to widen the scope of their appeal, to act as a secular party, and have rejected any formal relationship with the Church. Sinn Féin’s relationship with the Church has been more volatile; but despite frequent mutual antagonism, there have been continual attempts at cooperation. A long-standing tension exists between republicans and the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church’s tendency to provide political guidance in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement is less prominent than during the eras of civil rights demonstrations. But it is by no means absent. The Church continues to make political pronouncements, speak up for its people and provide political direction, but much of the heat and urgency has gone out and most clergy now prefer to play a more secondary role.
Despite that, the Catholic Church is not in reality the all powerful and omnipotent organization it is believed to be, and it has been unable to stop terrorism or stem support for radical republicanism. Its lost control on politics in the Catholic community, and its failure in controlling nationalist politics is demonstrated during the hunger strikes, when even the intervention of the Pope did not prevent ten men dying.
In opposition to the homogeneity of the Catholic Church, the Protestant market is highly fragmented. There are nearly a hundred denominations that house a variety of religious as well as political outlooks, from the highly politicized to the pietistic and apolitical ones. The main Protestant church is the Presbyterian Church, which has connections with the Church of Scotland, due to the Scottish planters and ministers who settled in Ulster. Until the 19th century, this church faced discriminatory laws (as did Catholics). Also prominent in Ulster are the Church of Ireland (Anglican, similar to the Church of England, and until 1869 the state church of Ireland) and the Methodist Church.
Although the Protestant churches have had some involvement in the organization of social life, their most striking public role is their actual involvement in political organizations. Amongst all Protestant churches there is a history of the overlap of religion and political personnel, which encompassed political opinion forming, community activism and participation in unionist party politics. Generally the Protestant clergy have been orientated to UUP and the more hardline DUP, a party founded by Rev. Ian Paisley in 1971, who also established the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster in 1951. Notably, Rev. Paisley also became the First Minister of Northern Ireland in 2007. There is a small minority of religious personnel who participated in loyalist paramilitary groups. But Protestant churches have also been involved in political mediation and representation of their community.
Historically, the dominant trend has been for the Protestant churches to follow and endorse the unionist political mainstream, especially since the 19th century when Protestants merged to resist the increase of Catholic influence in Dublin’s Parliament. On the other hand, the main leaders of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 were mainly Protestant (radical Presbyterians).
More representative in Ulster’s history is the Protestant cleric who has woven together theological arguments against Catholicism with the defence of Protestant political and economical interest, like the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant of 1912 as a protest against the Third Home Rule Bill. A variety of clerical-politicians are active in politics, including membership to the Orange Order, which is committed to a classic brand of Reformed Protestantism concerned with promoting scriptural truth. There is also the Caleb Foundation (a conservative evangelical pressure group), the Black Preceptory and similar organizations.
Ian Paisley was the archetypical clerical-politician in Northern Ireland. His message was a mixture of evangelical religious orthodoxy, political conservatism and a strong defence of the Union. But there are quasi clerical-politicians whose members arose from loyalist paramilitary ranks, or at least renounced their affiliation to these armed groups. Instead, they embraced religion to become born-again Christians, during their period of imprisonment, as a way of redemption, and felt committed to religion and peace.
Meanwhile, individual Christians who formed their own organizations and networks arguably did the most effective work for peace during the Troubles and the peace process by engaging more effective at the grassroots. Networks of activists formed relationships with people at an individual level and nursed processes of personal transformations, by creating safe spaces of discussion, self-recovery and support. It is well recognized that priests in Clonard Monastery in West Belfast have been influential in brokering ceasefires and in facilitating political agreements. A well-known priest from Clonard Monastery is Father Alec Reid, a Redemptionist priest who facilitated a series of meetings between Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and SDLP John Hume. He later acted as their contact person with the Irish Government in Dublin from 1987 up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. He first became famous worldwide with a picture of him administering the last rites to the killed corporal David Howes in the ‘corporal killings’ event in 1988.
More recently, in September 2011, Rev. David Latimer, from the First Derry Presbyterian Church, became the first Protestant cleric from Northern Ireland to address Sinn Féin’s Ard Fheis (annual conference), causing a great ruckus amongst the Protestant community, being called the “latter-day Lundy”.
Currently, the Protestant and Catholic churches play a supporting role to the communities, rather than a leading role. However, the churches continue to be very important in Northern Ireland because of their central role in the organization and representation of their communities. As churches comforted and provided pastoral services through troubled times, they became more embedded in community structures, and in turn capitalized upon their central social position to maintain their influence in other areas of life, not least in politics.
BBC News: “IRA ceasefire 20 years on: The priest who brokered the peace”. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-28812366
CAIN: “Anti-Catholicism in Northern Ireland, 1600-1998”. http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/sectarian/brewer.htm#chap3
Irish Echo: “Presbyterian speaks at Sinn Féin Ard Fheis”. http://www.irishecho.com.au/2011/09/12/presbyterian-speaks-at-sinn-fein-ard-fheis/12352
Marginalia: “Religion, Violence, and Peace in Northern Ireland”. http://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/religion-violence-peace-northern-ireland-gladys-ganiel/
Mitchell, Claire. Religion, Identity and Politics in Northern Ireland: Boundaries of Belonging and Belief. Ashgate Publishing (2006).
Wikipedia: “Alec Reid”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alec_Reid
Research by Ignacio Álvarez Prieto for Northern Ireland Foundation.
Last updated: 16/2/2015