'Protestant Perceptions of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland' edited by Dominic Murray (2000)
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THE RELIGIOUS FACTOR
PROTESTANT ATTITUDES AND RELIGIOUS CONVICTIONS
On the one hand there exists the structured and ‘official’ face of Churches through authorised public statements, doctrinal positions and decisions of central Church bodies. On the other is the personalised identification through choice of individuals who are influenced by the teaching or witness of a particular Church. In the first case the public face of a Church represents some degree of corporate responsibility for what is assumed to be the opinion of its membership. If such representation is the result of a Synodical, Conference or Assembly decision then there is legitimacy in such a claim. However in many instances Church leadership is called upon to express opinions or make statements which by their nature are merely an expression of individual opinion. Given the demands of the ‘media age’ such occasions are numerous in Northern Ireland. While a Church leader will be aware of the prevailing opinion of his Church he will also recognise the difficulties of representing all the complex opinions of the membership. Leadership however is not confined to the representation of opinion, it calls for prophetic utterance.
The danger lies in any confusion of that prophetic role with the perception that it is also the opinion of those who make up the membership of a Church. In considering the view of any single denomination on a given issue both of these sources of material need to be distinguished.
The second and less easily defined part of a religious factor falls within the ambit of the personal opinion or attitude to public issues of those who through membership are influenced by the official or stated position of their denomination, or who adopt a stance based on what they would regard as ‘Christian principles’. By definition this category of a religious input is impossible to evaluate in general terms. The occasions upon which an individual will identify his or her opinion or attitude in terms of a particular religious belief are not numerous. Nevertheless in considering the role of religion it cannot be discounted. Faith, belief and practice are interwoven in Christian teaching which is not dependant on the position of any single denomination.
There are few episodes in the history of Northern Ireland which are devoid of a religious factor. Time and again that factor has dictated reaction as much as enabling prophecy on community trends. Protestantism and Roman Catholicism have come to be synonymous with the divisions of a troubled community. But denominational labels themselves denote much more than differing religious practice. They represent the core dilemma of an entire community. The overlap of those definitions with party-political affiliation has dictated the history of the Province at once clouding and defining the reasons why people believe and act as they do.
Within the Ulster Protestant community the diversity of denominational loyalties, the widely differing perceptions and aspirations of social progress and the ease with which people's reactions can be designated in terms of the religious/party political identifications, contain something of the clue to what sort of people addressed the Good Friday Agreement and voted in the Referenda. Those same pieces of a jigsaw which so often defy easy analysis continue to explain something of the attitudes to the Peace Process following the Mitchell Review and the establishment of a power-sharing Executive.
The words ‘a moment of truth’ have become, like ‘a crossroad’, or ‘historic’, synonymous with the chequered crisis vocabulary of Northern Ireland. Time and again commentators have pronounced and warned that our community faces a decision, a moment of crucial importance, which will decide an outcome or course of events of immense significance which in turn will lead to victory or defeat, hope or oblivion. In the on-going tapestry of ‘stop’ and ‘start’ progress towards political agreement and possible stability, which has been the Northern Ireland story, judgement has frequently preceded events and prophecy has outweighed reality. At times, those moments have emerged slowly on the community’s awareness. At others, they have been forced upon us by dramatic developments for which senses dulled by years of trauma and unfulfilled desires have been unprepared.
Like many aspects of the past 30 years, generalisations abound in Ulster. Yet often such judgements or comments have owed more to perceptions and less to reality. Equally so, perceptions have themselves become realities in the cauldron of community reaction to events over which the man or woman in the street has apparently exercised little control. Powerlessness is a subtle yet vivid ingredient to the population which confronted the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement. For years their voice had been dominated by reaction to horror, reaction to violence and reaction to events which, depending on individual political or religious labels, represented hope or despair.
After 30 years of mayhem and disorganised lives, the Protestant community faced such a moment of truth at the Referenda on the political way forward. What was different this time however was that that moment of truth called for an expression of opinion which could be listened to. Somehow the voiceless had been given a vehicle through which collective community judgement could be expressed beyond mere reaction to the latest atrocity. The truth of the ballot box so beloved by Protestant politicians could speak with a new anonymity and in a new way. What that voice would say was another matter - and a matter for another day. It was sufficient for a weary, wounded and disillusioned people that somehow they could influence events in ways which were new to an entire generation. The decisions of the Protestants of Northern Ireland at the Referenda were of much more significance than views on a political blue-print in which for many there lay a simplistic choice - peace or war. It was to be the beginning of a period of self-assessment and self-examination which continues to this day.
Before and after the Belfast Agreement, Protestantism and unionism in the Province has discovered more about itself than perhaps at any single period since the state was established. The lessons of history, the mistakes of history, the deeply held convictions and the inherent uncertainties of the past placed beside the powerful yearning for peace, the longing for ‘an end to it all’, contributed to decisions at the ballot box which have told us a great deal about the ethos, perception and indeed the reality of the Ulster Protestant. That dimension to the Referenda has only been surpassed by reactions since as the peace process has followed its path of hesitation and yet possibilities.
The truth is that the decisions of Protestants when asked to endorse or reject the Agreement had more to do with what had gone before than with what would follow. The euphoria was genuine, but it was a genuineness which stemmed from relief. The real test would come when the consequences of approval became apparent, when the details of approval began to bite on the transparent longing for progress and when the actual cost of making the Agreement work had to be counted. When the realities became apparent would attitudes change? Did those who read the Agreement and then voted really count the cost of what would follow? Had they really read the small print?
The Ulster Protestant has become an identifiable component in the ever-changing sameness of the Northern Ireland story. The identification has been clearer to the outsider than to that community itself. Composed of different segments to the Reformed religious faith, differing expressions of the pro-union or ‘British way of life’, the Ulster Protestants are an enigma to many beyond our shores. Within their own field of experience and aspiration they have been engaged in an endless search for identity. Given the perception that they see themselves as the real victims and targets of 30 years of terrorism allied to the inherent insecurity they feel at all times of prophecy about their long-term future, the emergence of the Peace Process took many of them by surprise.
It was not that they wanted to delay peace. It was not that what they sought was inevitably exclusive. It was more that war weariness, political reality and a community-wide longing to move away from the darkness of the suffering superseded any in-depth understanding of the price to be paid. That euphoria at the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the results of the Referenda together with the psychological belief that ‘things would work out right in the end’ hid from the Ulster Protestant another reality few, if any, were prepared to acknowledge. A lasting just peace would not necessarily give them all they cherished, protect all they felt they had fought and died for or make few demands on that concept so often their enemy in the past – compromise. Hidden behind the euphoria and the excitement of those early days of community decision, certain elements and emotions were yet to make their presence felt.
The real questions and the real answers would take time to surface. The pace of that surfacing would be as important as the issues. It would be brought about not by political developments alone, but by the ways in which others than themselves would handle them. Above all, the pace of change would play a role of vital importance and significance in the reaction of the Ulster Protestant to the Peace Process.
Relief may have dominated the Protestant electorate which recorded its view on the Agreement - what was to follow was dominated by a strange mixture of frustration, at times disbelief and genuine heart-searching as the cold light of day disclosed the real price to be paid for what they had said they wanted. The real question was what price they were prepared to pay to make it all happen - and whether what others in other communities wanted posed too great a threat to their own perception of a future for Northern Ireland? A majority of Ulster Protestants continued to want to see political agreement – but even that majority was to learn more about itself as the Process emerged.
Analysis of the religious make-up of the Ulster Protestant community indicates first its fragmented state. But beyond that is the clear alliance between a religious ethos which sees ‘Protestantism’ as more what it is not, than what it may stand for. Deep in that identity is the anti-Roman Catholic stance. At some levels this factor has been much eroded as the years have passed and the ecumenical pilgrimage from a hesitant start has grown in confidence. Ecumenism is also social in nature. It is more obvious among segments of Protestantism in the middle-class than in what used to be called ‘working-class’ districts. It is also confined in the main to the ecumenical enthusiast who is in turn viewed with immense hostility and suspicion by the fundamentalist unionist of, for example, the Paisley tradition. "The ecumenical clergy" is a frequent phrase of derision by those who see any move towards bridging the traditional gap or joint-worship and witness as ‘a sell-out’ or a sinister move dictated by the arch-enemy, the Church of Rome. Any statement from a Roman Catholic source on a political issue is immediately identified by the fundamentalist unionist as yet one more example of the pan-nationalist or republican movement seeking to undermine the principles of a pro-union family and thereby constituting a threat and one more reason to oppose anything of an ecumenical nature. Clearly such reaction contributes yet again to a perception that Protestantism as a religious entity is of less importance than Protestantism as a party political force. Thus the constitutional issue so long the darling of unionism becomes a religious issue based on the transparent fear that anything stemming from greater contact across the divide moves Ulster closer to the concept of a united Ireland in which the age-old enemy of ‘Rome rule’ can again be shouted from the roof tops in a mixture of fear, revulsion and emphatic proclamation of ‘No Surrender’.
As Protestant Ulster viewed the results of the Referenda and watched the lengthy manifestations of the Mitchell Review the divisions in political unionism became clear. A majority of Protestants were prepared to express cautious support for moves towards agreement, to express even reluctant acceptance and reservations about reform of the police, the early release of prisoners and power-sharing with nationalists and republicans, but to urge something which would give a new start and move society away from the violence. Within their churches caution stemmed from the recognition of the strength of the ‘no’ camp. Church leadership reflected that caution in the main. When I indicated in a radio interview that I personally favoured the positive ‘yes approach’ it was clear from the reaction that opinion was more evenly divided than the Referenda would indicate.
BEYOND THE PEW
The truth is that Northern Ireland is a religious community. It is divided on religious denominational lines. Frequent census returns have indicated a large majority of people claiming definite religious affiliation. Something like 80 per cent of the community claims church membership of some sort. In England the figure is closer to 13 per cent. However when such figures are analysed by church bodies in terms of active membership the picture changes dramatically. The flags of convenience of religious affiliation at a census bear little resemblance to identifiable church involvement. However Churchmen continue to be asked for opinions on current affairs on the assumption that religion is a vital part of the life of the northern community and religious education continues to be one of the most sensitive parts of the school curriculum. The truth is that everyday involvement in church life is subordinate for many to a desire to be identified by one or other of the main religious labels which are comforting, traditional and have a significance greater than religious faith alone. For many the religious definition they wish to adopt has as much to say of what they are not as it has to do with what they claim to be. In Northern Ireland allegiance to one Church has often tragically meant opposition to the other. For many Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists, to name but a few, Protestantism comes before the particular teaching of an individual reformed denomination. Many find it hard to explain what this means in positive religious terms. But that same percentage have little doubt what they are not.
The Protestant family in the Province is divided into a myriad of autonomous parts. Apart from the main four denominations there are numerous sects and groups which are strongly evangelical in faith and practice. This fragmentation has a lot to do with the difficulties of seeking a definition of clear religious influence. It also explains the absence of any identifiable clear voice which can speak in a religious sense for all Protestants on every issue on every occasion. Thus the age-old syndrome of religious identity and party political identity comes into its own. To be born into a Protestant home in Northern Ireland involves a lifetime of some form of unionism and to be born into a unionist home involves identification with Protestantism. Equally so to be born a Roman Catholic is perceived to be a prelude to the influence of some form of nationalism or republicanism. However, the alliance of one or other reformed religious traditions with unionism, once unquestioned, is beginning to erode. Impatience on the part of the political activists with reluctance by church leadership to give them a signed cheque of approval in advance on any issue has grown in recent years. The struggle on the part of the reformed Churches to find an independence from party political identity is coming to be a significant characteristic of this decade. As Church leadership struggles to find a 'pan‘Christian' platform, so the protagonists of a ‘pan-unionist’ philosophy find it hard to understand, let alone accept, that the age-old alliance is changing. Perhaps no greater challenge faces the Protestant Churches in Northern Ireland in the new millennium than to convince the community that Christianity is the priority and party political allegiance a matter of individual conscience. There have been, are and will undoubtedly continue to be times when the Church will reflect similar concerns to those expressed by politicians. But the days when either grouping could count inevitably on the support and understanding of the other are disappearing. There is pain in this process but reactions to the Peace Process within and beyond the pew clearly indicate age-old alliances are being eroded. The main-stream Protestant denominations now face the cost of such change in the growing popularity of minor religious groups which in most instances are more ready to reflect traditional party allegiances allied to vociferous evangelism.
Sectarianism has taken many forms in the history of the Province. It has sprung from many sources. It has had many consequences. There has been party political sectarianism which has prevented any real political dialogue for many years. Unchallenged use of political power has gone hand-in-hand with structured sectarianism. Social sectarianism has been endemic because of the closeness of this community and as a consequence of the earlier commercial and industrial power being concentrated in relatively few hands. But the most obvious sectarianism, lying at the root of so many of our problems, has been religious.
Religious sectarianism has itself taken different forms, always with disastrous consequences. These include tensions between Protestants and Roman Catholics, mutual suspicion of each other's religious/political identity, ignorance of each other's practices or beliefs, attitudes of religious apartheid which are only gradually beginning to disappear and open hostility to anything ecumenical. Frequent references are made to the allocation of employment or the promotion of employees on purely religious grounds. In the early days of the civil rights movement attention was focused on the accusation that housing allocation was dictated by sectarian considerations and that these were entirely of a religious nature. The ‘one man one vote’ call had as much to do with divisions on grounds of religious identity as it was connected to electoral reform. Ultimately the paramilitary campaigns were to produce the most fundamental blasphemy - sectarian killing.
I recall a visit to the southern states of America at the time of the racial riots and the start of the Martin Luther King era. So much I witnessed and listened to bore similarities to the Irish situation. Here there was also distrust and suspicion, boiling over into violence and there were visionaries and a long history of self-perpetuating community uncertainties. The lesson I learned from both is that reconciliation cannot be achieved by legislation alone. People need to want to be reconciled. For a large number of Protestants at grass-roots level reconciliation like ecumenism is a word of weakness.
If religious intolerance is the outward and visible sign of a sickness in this community, one must ask about its causes as well as its consequences from a religious point of view. If it is a recurring feature of daily life it presents a challenge to the churches. It prompts questions about the relevance of the churches and their influence, about the nature of their teaching and the integrity of the example they have set, about the ways in which Christianity has been portrayed through the generations, about power and control. For the churches the questions are numerous. As more than one commentator has concluded that the churches in Northern Ireland are on trial.
In 1980 the Role of the Church Committee of the Church of Ireland had little doubt as to the way forward. Recognising the existence of religious sectarianism in Northern Ireland, it concluded:
Such wording in a church report will seem laudable and worthy of support by many. But several questions arise. Do the Irish churches actually acknowledge the existence of religious bigotry and intolerance based on religious beliefs? Are the churches willing to examine in depth their responsibility for in any way encouraging their attitudes? To what extent are the churches prepared to actively oppose sectarianism in Irish society and to actively make changes in their structures to help in its eradication thus furthering the process of peace?
These questions go to the sensitive root of a great deal of the churches’ activities and even of their witness. To acknowledge the existence of sectarianism and sectarian attitudes is one thing : to acknowledge that we may have had a part in their development is less comfortable. That process has become so clearly a priority in the light of the Good Friday Agreement. The peace process itself has brought to the surface questions whose answers are dictated as much by sectarianism as by any other ingredient. Yet I believe the time has come to not only ask those questions, but to attempt to answer them. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality is undeniably present in the life of Northern Ireland today and religion has a role in this.iii But in many instances what constitutes religion has become an inclusive label for attitudes and actions which are anything but Christian. Both communities have played their part in this process. Sectarianism is not the prerogative of one tradition only.
It is all too easy to cite examples of how ‘the other side’ has fostered negative attitudes towards their neighbours. Extreme Protestantism has been accused of encouraging anti-Romanism, but one must ask is the extremist alone among Protestants in seeing the Roman Catholic tradition in purely negative terms? From the extremes of the anti-Roman Catholic sermons, writings and statements which question the very identity of the Roman Catholic faith as ‘Christian’ to the more moderate view that tends to dwell on the association of the Church with nationalistic or republican philosophies, the thrust is the same. It differs only in matters of degree.
Equally, within the Roman Catholic tradition one has come across a questioning of the willingness of the Protestant Church to speak of justice, equality and truth. Such examples may be infrequent, but they do exist. The late Roman Catholic Primate of All Ireland, Cardinal O’Fiaich, once remarked that there was bigotry in both traditions, but that while Roman Catholic opposition to Protestants was influenced by the political situation, in the case of Protestants, prejudice towards Catholics was religious in nature. Experience has taught me that there is considerable truth in that remark.
In my own Church, the Church of Ireland, the report on sectarianism debated at the General Synod in 1999 as the Peace Process continued at a political level, indicated a willingness to self-examine the structures of a Christian Church in the light of what could be described as ‘sectarian attitudes’.iv The thoughtful debate which ensued said much about the struggle for hearts and minds which on a larger canvas Northern Ireland would face when Senator Mitchell’s Review report appeared. In the report, the Church which had been exposed to the full implications for successive stand-offs at Drumcree, had attempted to maintain unity as a cross-border Church and had felt the internal pressures of north–south political and cultural tensions, examined its attitude to the Orange Order, flags and emblems, education and Church teaching. Synodical reactions were by and large predictable. But the debate was to be a cameo of the community-wide analysis of the issues highlighted by the Mitchell Review. Southern Church members could not comprehend the connections between their co-religionists in the north and what they perceived as a totally sectarian movement such as the Orange Order. Northern Anglicans were divided between traditional support for, or involvement in, the Order and embarrassment at the media portrayals of violence and bigotry outside Drumcree Parish Church. Questions surfaced which will undoubtedly engage the Church of Ireland for many years. On the wider scene the belief was general that what was happening to the Church of Ireland because of Drumcree would have repercussions for all the mainline Protestant denominations across the Province. As one commentator put it:
To solve Drumcree would be a major step towards acceptance of the small print of the peace process. To produce a credible peace solution would move Drumcree towards a local accommodation.
On the one side of this problem lies the apprehension that the peace process has been too much one way in that nationalism or republicanism has gained much, to the detriment of unionism or loyalism. Add to that the deep apprehension that refusal to be allowed "down the Garvaghy Road" is but one more erosion of the Protestant ethos and that such a parade is seen as triumphalism in a nationalist area and the intransigence on both sides becomes a certainty.
It is extremely difficult, having acknowledged the existence of sectarianism, to ‘get to the bottom’ of what causes it. A recent sociological survey has suggested that sectarian attitudes are apparent among children as young as seven or eight. The antagonism felt by some Protestants towards Roman Catholics is often classified as distrust of ‘the power’ of the Roman Catholic Church. Extreme Protestant opinion will cite the falling numbers of their co-religionists in the Republic as evidence of what happens when a state is dominated by Roman Catholics. They will talk about the effects of ‘mixed’ or inter-church marriages where rules about the upbringing of children are seen to close the door on any continuing Protestant religious allegiance. They will warn that the rising Roman Catholic birth-rate will eventually lead to a total demographic change. Above all, they will express suspicions about the political aspirations of ‘Catholics in general’, aspirations which they see enhanced and encouraged by the public statements of Roman Catholic Churchmen. All too frequently I hear remarks about ‘the failure of Catholics to support the Northern Ireland state’, their reluctance to support ‘the security forces’ and their ‘constant recital of imagined injustice’. It is debatable to what extent practical ignorance of Roman Catholics has grown out of the pattern of separate communities, living by themselves, working with those who are co-religionists and to a large extent taking part in recreational activities which are not ‘mixed’ in membership, to say nothing of their children being educated in schools which are largely segregated - not by design but by custom - has made such attitudes inevitable. Undoubtedly, these are highly significant factors.
As I have said before, Protestantism, for historical reasons, is a fragmented body. Religious denominationalism is important for Irish Protestants. While at times, particularly in a party political sense, it is possible to generalise about Protestant attitudes to a particular issue, it is not always possible to talk of a united ‘religious’ opinion. In some Protestant churches membership of inter-church bodies is impossible. Reasons given for such attitudes vary, but undoubtedly a common denominator is at best a reluctance and at worst open opposition to involvement with the Roman Catholic Church. As late as 1999 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland voted against joining a majority of Protestant Churches in a new ecumenical structure which would involve Roman Catholics.v
When Roman Catholics have looked towards their Protestant neighbours it is undoubtedly true that their political/religious alignments are what they see first and foremost. Their memories of discrimination, the ascendancy and power of Protestants, come into play, as well as the determination of the Orange Order to parade with ‘triumphalism’ through Catholic areas. When such parades end in a church service the feeling of insult deepens. For many Catholics, Protestant extremism is Protestantism and moderate Protestantism is not as easily recognised. In the years prior to the Good Friday Agreement attention may have been focused on the divisions of the Drumcree controversy. Behind those emotive and dramatic divisions lay much more than claims of the right to walk down a stretch of road by the Orange Order. Drumcree has represented the realities of the Northern Ireland which entered the years of the peace process. It spoke of more than rights or duties. It enforced the raw nerve of traditional Protestant expression of a part of its historic ethos - and the growing confidence of nationalism to express its own perceived rights.
Following the Good Friday Agreement, the Church parliaments of the main Protestant churches discussed the outcome and looked ahead. The debates reflected a mixture of genuine relief and traditional caution. Yet there was a new sense of prophetic vision.
In May 1998 the General Synod of the Church of Ireland passed the following resolution :
During the debates at the Synod it was clear that a majority of the members, north and south, wanted to be seen to be supporting the Agreement even though some from Northern Ireland were already expressing apprehensions on the question of disarmament of paramilitaries.
Later that same year the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland reflected the realities of the voting on the Agreement:
and, welcoming the possible devolution of power to locally elected representatives further resolved:
Commenting on the ‘yes’ majority vote at the Referenda, the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland stated:
Experience has taught me that the wording of resolutions and comments by church gatherings usually attempt to steer a middle course in the light of the widely differing views of church membership and avoid in many instances the expression of emphatic opinion. However in this instance the general tenor of official church attitudes was fully supportive of the voting on the Referenda and encouraging of future political progress towards agreed structures of devolution in Northern Ireland.
As the peace process continued at a political level in late 1999 several key issues crystallised the various concerns of northern Protestants both in their churches and in their daily lives.
The continuing release of terrorist prisoners from the Maze and other prisons, the proposals in the Patten Report on policing, the Mitchell Review of the Belfast Agreement and the statements on decommissioning of terrorist weapons opened up yet more evidence of the divisions within the Protestant community. The prospects for the formation of an Executive to include Sinn Fein before decommissioning became a reality threatened to tear political unionism apart. Within parish and congregational life those divisions surfaced among both clergy and laity. The intensity of such feeling was not surprising. Again pressure mounted in many areas for denominational support to be expressed as the traditional tensions became once more evident.
An inter-denominational group of some 200 clergy presented the pro-Agreement parties at Stormont with a statement entitled Faith in a Brighter Future’:
PERCEPTIONS OF PEACE
Not for the first time the raw nerve of experience, emotion and uncertainty mixed with the tentative expressions of support for steps into the political unknown appeared in the pews. Local clergy, themselves representing differing views, were facing congregations which in many cases worshipped in church buildings adorned by memorials to former UDR and RUC members killed in ‘The Troubles’. They worked with families which had lost loved ones at the hands of Republican terrorism. They listened to parishioners who wanted the chance to move into a new era of peace and stability. But they also heard from those who craved for the expression of political ideals which they could understand in clear ways. There was a growing disenchantment with the manipulation of language in official statements where it was perceived words were no longer the vehicle of their idea of fact. Nowhere was this more clear than in the decision that despite evidence of punishment beatings, armed robberies with a political slant and other local incidents of armed activity that officialdom did not consider the ‘ceasefire’ had been broken. The interesting feature of this aspect of Protestant reaction was not that people wanted the peace process to be diverted – but that what they perceived to be the truth had somehow been manipulated for political reasons. As one Church group put it to me : "the peace process certainly, but not at the cost of a debasement of language where truth suffers." Clearly perceptions influence such opinions – but it was interesting to note that somewhere, somehow in the Protestant consciousness factors whether right or wrong had entered the debate – and factors which to those concerned somehow transcended the individual party political outlook.
Protestantism has long proclaimed an ethos which has included the work ethic and principles of personal morality for which justification has stemmed from the Old as well as the New Testaments. Rigid adherence to scriptural truth has long been the characteristic of fundamental Protestantism. Fundamentalism has itself characterised much of Ulster Protestantism. That view-point has also been identifiable in terms of party political philosophy. From the frequent expression ‘For God and Ulster’ has emerged as a catch-word of certain loyalist groupings to rival even in part the equally vehement ‘No Pope here’ rallying call. Yet it has to be noted that part of the difficulty in identifying a religious factor stems from the hijacking of a so-called pan-Protestant religious ethic by those whose interest is entirely tribal and party-politicised.
The period of the Peace Process has not been an easy chapter for the main Protestant Churches in Northern Ireland. During the years of violence pastoral support for victims, condemnation of the endless cycle of injury and death, seemingly endless funerals and appeals for an end to the mayhem co-existed at an official level with calls for political action to fill the vacuum. Once the first tentative steps towards dialogue emerged, the Churches appeared less confident in their official utterances. Naturally a majority of such statements centred on encouragement for the emergence of political movement but with few exceptions the public stance reflected something of the uncertainties surfacing at congregational or parochial level in the Protestant family. The visible swing to clear support for the long party political process really only appeared in the weeks leading to the establishment of an agreed government following the Mitchell Review.
The reasons for this picture of Church attitude are as complex as the process itself. The encouragement of dialogue emerged from Churches which had grown accustomed to the clarity of distinction between the evil of violence and the moral legitimacy of ‘peace’. Ministry to the bereaved, condemnation of paramilitary activity and urging politicians to continue their progress to what would end it all, had brought leadership very close to the rank and file of the religious community. The uncertainty of those who themselves understood the issues of the days of violent mayhem but found it increasingly difficult to adjust to dialogue involving traditional ‘enemies’ influenced what should have been a prophetic voice. The pace of change leading up to the Agreement confronted a church-going people with degrees of uncertainty reflected elsewhere by party political hardening of attitude. Peace was demanded - but had it to be at any price?
In retrospect it is possible now to detect something of the struggle the Protestant Churches in Northern Ireland faced as first signs of the ‘unbelievable’ began to emerge. From providing a necessary religious/social ambulance service to a community in trauma, the transition had to be to the prophetic image of understanding the need to be conditioned to dramatic change. It called for the welcome of change and it called for explanation of forgiveness, reconciliation and renewal. The Christian duty may have been becoming plain - the realities of ‘a house divided’ was less easy to define. It may not be the duty of a religious denomination to tell people how they should vote - undoubtedly the parameters of how society should make up its mind, the sort of issues it should take on board in that process - such ingredients had to be related to Christian teaching and Biblical truth.
Not for the first time these were the very areas of division for religious Protestantism before, during and after the Referenda. Fundamentalism spoke loudly of divine retribution, Biblical revelation of the need to express clear confessions of guilt for past crimes and the ‘immoral concept’ of terrorists having any place in government while arms remained in commission. The broad spectrum of ‘middle of the way’ religious Protestantism urged progress which would include the possibility of disarmament and the recognition that not everyone would achieve all they hoped for in a settlement. Such thinking was allied to the New Testament concepts of forgiveness of others, reconciliation – and the admission that even one’s ‘own side’ had made serious mistakes in the past. The lines were drawn. The divisions became apparent. Yet no one would deny the overwhelming desire to end the causes of violence once and for all.
When the voting figures of the Ulster Unionist Council debate on the Mitchell proposals were announced they were a true reflection of the divisions of opinion apparent in most Church of Ireland, Methodist and Presbyterian congregations in Northern Ireland. Indeed the compromise resolution on a further Unionist review of progress to be held in February 2000 gave a strange comfort to the Protestants in the pew as much as it opened the way for a ‘yes’ vote in the Waterfront.
With the creation of an Executive and the end of direct rule ‘religious Ulster’ continued to reflect the hope and the uncertainty of its people. Presbyterianism spoke of the important movement reflected in the Sinn Fein and Ulster Unionist documents prompted by the Mitchell Review and the bishops of the Northern Province of the Church of Ireland issued a statement:
The pendulum had begun to swing. The first tentative voices of prophecy were emerging. Trust, the real casualty of the Troubles was essential – but safeguards to political adventure were welcomed.
Justice and respect for humanity made in the image of God are essential to understanding the prayer of Christ on the cross. For the hopeful yet uncertain days ahead in Northern Ireland the call to the Church is becoming clear. To preach reconciliation and understanding may reflect the majority opinion of a community in transition but it will continue to be a problem for those who cannot either forgive or forget. Yet there is no alternative for any Christian voice which seeks integrity with that first Good Friday. The Churches must struggle with what peace means, what peace involves and with what ‘love your enemies’ really calls for. The price is great –but there is no other way. From close identity with suffering the Church must move ahead into the uncharted waters of ‘the possible’.
Whether or not future generations will see in our day the first real moves to a new integrity of Protestant Churches in Northern Ireland in which the Gospel of love, peace and justice for all supersedes unquestioning allegiance to a traditional tribal philosophy remains to be seen. Secularism has come of age throughout the island of Ireland behind the smokescreen of the 30 years of war. The Church faces not just the challenge of a process of peculiarly Irish secularism but the corrosive remains of deep and destructive sectarianism. In the on-going Peace Process the challenge could not be greater. The failures of the past must never be forgotten, but equally those lessons must not be allowed to dominate witness and genuine Christian prophesy. Church teaching and activity may well have been and continue to be a part of the problem. Can the Church really become part of the solution?
Perhaps the most significant emotion to emerge within the Protestant community as details of the ‘small print’ of the Peace Process began to emerge after the Agreement was hurt. Certainly within the Protestant Churches, clergy and laity gave expression to that strange mixture of reactions which was evident in the wider community. These included relief, uncertainty, anxiety to push forward - but chiefly, hurt. Memories of personal losses, death and injury surfaced and groupings highlighted such aspects of the Patten Report on policing as a failure to pay adequate tribute to the cost paid by the RUC over the years of active terrorism as well as emphasising the feelings of various victim support organisations. In congregations and parishes, committees and select vestries passed resolutions drawing attention to the cost of the troubles. But the feeling of hurt grew in significance at parish level. There was talk of organising special services and events to mark the memory of those who had been lost and Church leadership was pressurised to find vehicles through which this could be expressed.
It is difficult to analyse the real nature of this particular reaction to events. For individuals and families which had carried such depths of emotional stress and trauma no political development would ever replace the sense of loss or remove the deep sadness. Many expressed resentment that the pace of political change was leaving behind due recognition of the cost of sacrifice. This feeling emerged with fresh momentum when the Mitchell Review led to the nomination of ministerial positions and the Protestant community were faced with the prospect of representatives of what they perceived and indeed regarded as the cause of their loss and hurt, holding office. In more than one parish there was reluctance to pray for "all in positions of responsibility."
The challenge to a Gospel of reconciliation and renewal became really clear. The pressure on Church leadership increased. What was the message that the Church should give to a community which was expressing such a myriad of emotions? Forgiveness is a central core of the Gospel. What forgiveness was to be expected of those who had lost most? Was forgiveness to be forthcoming from individuals if the Gospel spoke of the forgiveness God alone could grant? In the absence of any declaration by former terrorists of regret for their actions, what could be reasonably expected of victims? And where did the demands of reconciliation come into the picture?
Such questions went to the heart of the matter and the Churches at various levels began to confront the implications of the Peace Process in ways that had been kept at arms length by the events of 30 years of pastoral aid to a suffering community.
In the years to come several factors at present uncertain will become clear. Will the process of political progress continue? Will the power-sharing executive survive? Will the political risks taken be justified? Will the paramilitary organisations prove that the war is finally over?
In those same years the Christian Gospel may not be on trial. But the lives of individual Christians most certainly will be.
THE CHURCHES’ ROLE
Christianity affirms the sovereignty of God not just in individual lives but in that of the community. To love our enemies, to pursue justice for others as well as ourselves and to enhance peace are Gospel imperatives. The achievement of such ends is equalled only by the determination to encourage all means to that achievement. As I stated earlier, political agreements do not achieve reconciliation per se. They merely provide the structures in which hearts and minds can grasp ways of building a just peace. That is surely the point Northern Ireland has reached as 1999 draws to a close. Peace can become a lasting reality and justice for an entire community achieved if the words of the Ulster Unionist and Sinn Fein statements that society had to put behind it the failure to accept legitimate and different identities and that violence had to become a thing of the past can be translated into practice. The years of prayers and the countless calls for a new beginning from pulpit and sanctuary will be answered if people of faith have the courage to match that faith with real and courageous witness. That witness will concern itself with a struggle to understand what reconciliation and forgiveness actually mean. For the Churches of Northern Ireland there is no option. They must be a part of the struggle.
R.S. Thomas in his poem "The Moon in the Lleyn" reflects something of the dilemma facing the Church today in Northern Ireland:
Perhaps the real struggle for hearts and minds in Protestant and religious Ulster has just begun.
i ECONI ‘Building the Peace’, An Evangelical Response to the Mitchell Review, 24 November 1999.
ii ‘Report of the Church Committee to the General Synod of the Church of Ireland: Journal of the General Synod, 1980.
iv Journal of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, Committee on Sectarianism Report, 1999.
v See Report of the Presbyterian Assembly, 1999.
vi Journal of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland 1998.
vii Reports of the Presbyterian General Assembly, Church and Government Committee, 1998.
ix The Reverend Dr N Taggart, President of the Methodist Church in Ireland.
x Church of Ireland Press Office, 1999.
xi Church of Ireland Press Office, 1999.
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.
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