Northern Ireland: Christians in Conflict?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Sep 2003

This simple equation has been one of the clichés of western journalism for most of my lifetime. If anyone wanted proof that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, was socially divisive and a source of violence, look there, to the six counties of Ireland’s north-east.

Although we in Ireland have always known that politics was a more potent source of Irish violence, there has always been even here a certain pandering to the secular myth that religion and violence are bedfellows. We will point to Ian Paisley as the exemplar of the violent bigot who, while steering personally clear of activities that would have landed him in the H Blocs, steered others in that direction. And we will say things like: sure isn’t republicanism a kind of religion too.

Never mind that virtually all the men of violence clearly had an entirely secular axe to grind: republicans in their belief that the Pearsite tradition had forever made sacred the ideal of a thirty-two county state; loyalists in their addiction to Protestant domination as a political cause. No-one has ever argued, in my recollection, that the secular myths that sustained Irish violence raised serious questions about the beneficence of secularism per se. Via Irish secularist intellectuals like Eamonn McCann, secularism became the holy cause that would bring peace everywhere, especially in this “priest ridden”country.

It is time we looked with far more jaundiced eyes at the non-violent claims of secularism. The arms race, and the arms industry, were, and are, entirely secular activities. So is politics, the source of virtually all twentieth century wars. The violence of the Soviet Union, of communist China, and of fascist Italy and Germany, stemmed entirely from secular ideologies, and made a target of the spiritualities that underlay the greatest opponents of violence – the churches.

It is time especially to do this in Ireland, where the churches are still being targeted by secular ideologues as the major obstacle to peace. Isn’t the Orange Order, a religious organisation, at the root of the Drumcree conflict? And isn’t it the Catholic desire for a separatist educational system, and the reactionary Protestant bigotry that results, at the root of the Holy Cross scandal?

It takes only the slightest element of religiosity in any Irish conflict to get the secularists going about the baneful influence of religion – but no-one ever points to the violence inherent in all secular utopian dreams. Or to the obvious fact that the drive for power in human affairs – an entirely secular preoccupation – lies at the root of virtually all violence.

This summer in Northern Ireland my wife and I took a holiday in County Fermanagh. My wife Patricia has wanted for many years to visit the Marble Arch caves in South Fermanagh, close to the border with Monaghan.

On our route from Coleraine lies Omagh, and specifically the Ulster-American folk park lying just south of that city. For many years this complex has been a splendid resource for all those seriously grappling with the problem of educating young people in the North to the importance of mutual respect for differing traditions.

It divides the young person’s experience into Old World and New World. The old world is the nineteenth century peasant world of the region – Protestant and Catholic. A Presbyterian meeting house lies close to a Catholic primary school – and the visiting pupil will experience both as part of a single Old World order in Ireland – as well as the atmosphere of a forge, where the farmers of both traditions would have met and mingled.

The New World is the world of the American homesteader, of the log cabin, the Conestoga Wagon, the snake fence, the long rifle and the general store. The latter is fully fitted with all of the stock in trade of the store in, say, the movie Shane.

In between lies the experience of the emigrant ship – and all children must pass through this to reach the New World. There is no way in which a Protestant child could fail to associate much Irish emigration with famine and despoliation – while Catholic children will learn about the kinship ties that often bound Ulster and New England non-conformists.

We history teachers are worried these times about the failure of experiences of this kind to make much impact upon children from interface areas who have been schooled in tribal loyalties, and in the historiography that goes with them. We cannot measure their impact upon thousands of other children making up their own minds on such issues, and looking for consolidation of their inclinations towards peace. It is the home that has first, and longest, impact upon all children – but all NI schools in my experience have tried hard – especially in the history classroom – to gain some kind of purchase upon the bigotry that would otherwise have overwhelmed them.

As a consequence, NI schools generally remained oases of calm in the most violent times, even in interface areas – and this has been acknowledged by psychiatrists treating the child victims of violence. The Holy Cross nightmare was terrifying precisely because it was the first of its kind – and it remains a unique reminder of what might have happened elsewhere if schools, and the churches that support them, had pitched into the conflict in the way the myth of religious violence suggests they should.

This summer, the Ulster-American Folk park in Omagh was host to families from all backgrounds in Northern Ireland. We found them there, sampling Ulster drop scones and wheaten bread along with New England candle-making.

We found them also in Enniskillen, visiting the pre-reformation Christian remains on White island and Devenish island. Tired of the endless tendency of politicians to claim their allegiance to tired secular myths, many in Ulster are looking for the historical truth, and making excellent use of the resources available to them.

And they are doing this in the context of a miraculous calm. This summer there was no serious violence accompanying Orange celebrations. It seems that the shame of Drumcree has had its impact now – and the Holy Cross issue no longer dominates urban headlines.

Suddenly Limerick and Tallaght are more dangerous places to be than Derry or Belfast. Will the secularists notice this, or will they look for religious influences over Limerick stabbings or Dublin shootings? It is time they woke up and realised that it is the supposed peacefulness of secularism that is the greater myth.

What might southerners do to consolidate this new peace in the north? Realise what an exciting place it is just now – especially for a holiday. Please come north now, you southern Christians and tell us what we need to hear – the simple truth. All of Ireland is free at last – and nationalist and unionist as well.

It is fitting that this message should come from the churches – because they have performed unacknowledged marvels of restraint to bring it about.

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