Religion, Violence, and Peace in Northern Ireland – By Gladys Ganiel

Gladys Ganiel on Richard Jordan’s The Second Coming of Paisley; John Brewer, David Mitchell, and Gerard Leavey’s Ex-Combatants, Religion and Peace in Northern Ireland; and John Brewer, Gareth Higgins, and Francis Teeney’s Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland

the second coming of paisley
Richard Lawrence Jordan, The Second Coming of Pailey: Militant Fundamentalism and Ulter Politics, Syracuse University Press, 2013, 328pp., $39.95

In January 2014, the BBC aired a two-part interview with Reverend Ian Paisley, the retired, octogenarian founder of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Free Presbyterian Church. Paisley’s personal longevity and the durability of the political and religious institutions he has created make him an important figure in modern European history. He is also notorious, routinely accused of having stirred up violence through his use of fiery, anti-Catholic rhetoric during the “Troubles,” the long-running conflict between predominantly Protestant unionists and predominantly Catholic nationalists who promoted radically divergent visions of Northern Ireland’s political identity vis-à-vis the United Kingdom. In the end, more than 3,500 people lost their lives at the hands of paramilitary groups from both communities as well as British state forces.

The recorded interview, titled Genesis to Revelation, sought to explore aspects of Paisley’s personal journey that took him from the rejectionist “Dr. No” who opposed the peace process at every turn, to the politician who ultimately shared the office of Northern Ireland’s First Minister and Deputy First Minister with Martin McGuinness, a former leader in the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Questions about the relationship between religion, violence, and peacemaking in Northern Ireland have largely focused on Paisley. While Genesis to Revelation raised many of these questions, Paisley’s responses left them largely unanswered. He refused to grant that his words contributed to violence. He said that he had no regrets about his career. And he asserted that peace would not have been possible without him.

These books offer arguments that are directly at odds with Paisley’s assessment of his own career.

Paisley’s considerable shadow looms over three recent books exploring religion in Northern Ireland: The Second Coming of Paisley: Militant Fundamentalism and Ulster Politics, by Richard Jordan; Ex-Combatants, Religion and Peace in Northern Ireland, by John Brewer, David Mitchell, and Gerard Leavey; and Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland, by John Brewer, Gareth Higgins, and Francis Teeney. These are scholarly and nuanced analyses of the relationship between religion, violence, and peace. They complicate historical assessments of the role of religion in Northern Ireland and raise challenging questions about what role it continues to play during the post-violence transition. All three are relevant to current conversations in Northern Ireland because they engage with questions about the past and the future. And each offers arguments that are directly at odds with Paisley’s assessment of his own career.

With a title like The Second Coming of Paisley, one would assume that Jordan’s book focuses on Paisley’s surprising decision to share power with the political wing of the IRA, Sinn Féin. But Jordan’s main concern is the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Paisley developed strong bonds with American Protestant fundamentalist leaders, including the Jones family, who ran Bob Jones University; General Edwin A. Walker, a John Birch Society devotee who advised soldiers how to vote in American elections; and Georgia Governor Lester Maddox, who “prevented African Americans from eating at his Pickrick restaurant in Atlanta, chasing them into the street with hand guns and axe handles.”

Jordan is not the first scholar to note the links between Ulster and American Protestant fundamentalism. But this is the first book to look at this relationship in such depth, and to argue that Paisley’s observations of the American civil rights movement had far-reaching consequences for his religious/political development. Just as American fundamentalists vigorously proclaimed that there was a plot to use integration, civil rights agitation, and black street violence to achieve a “godless America,” Paisley raged that a “pan-nationalist front” including republicanism, Catholicism, ecumenism, and the civil rights movement to end discrimination against Catholics would destroy the last vestiges of “true Christianity” in Ulster.

Ian Paisley – Image via Wikimedia Commons

Unsurprisingly, many viewers of Genesis to Revelation were shocked when Paisley admitted that Catholics were discriminated against prior to the start of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. He said: “It wasn’t one man, one vote. I mean that’s no way to run a country. … The whole system was wrong.” Such words from Paisley in 2014 are difficult to reconcile with his public life in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he seemed devoted to destroying the civil rights movement and contributed significantly to the violence that followed. Although Paisley has never publicly said that he was influenced by events in the American civil rights movement, Jordan claims that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination gave Paisley a new sense of purpose. He would become more militant to ensure that Catholics in Northern Ireland would not make the same gains as African-Americans. “Without Paisleyism,” Jordan concludes, “it is safe to say, the ‘Troubles’ would have unfolded very differently — if they unfolded at all.”

The Second Coming of Paisley does not include as many insights into the contemporary period (especially since the peace agreement of 1998) as some might hope. But Jordan’s careful scrutiny of Paisley’s actions during the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland shows us how Paisley used religion to justify his political project and leaves us wondering if other voices will emerge to contest Paisley’s claims.

John Brewer, David Mitchell, and Gerard Leavey, Ex-Combatants, Religion, and Peace in Northern Ireland: The Role of Religion in Transitional Justice, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 208pp., $90.00
John Brewer, David Mitchell, and Gerard Leavey, Ex-Combatants, Religion, and Peace in Northern Ireland: The Role of Religion in Transitional Justice, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 208pp., $90.00

As it happens, some of those voices receive significant attention in Ex-Combatants, Religion and Peace in Northern Ireland, a product of a joint research project between the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health and the Compromise after Conflict initiative of Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Aberdeen. Sociologist John Brewer is the lead researcher in Compromise after Conflict, and this co-authored book is the latest in his long line of work on religion, conflict, and peace processes. Based on 29 in-depth interviews with loyalists (part of the Protestant/unionist community) and republicans (part of the Catholic/nationalist community), it is the first major book to analyse the religious beliefs and practices of those who engaged in violence, including their perceptions of how religion influenced them.

An especially insightful chapter on “Religion and Motivations for Violence” illuminates the way in which “personality, experience, political understanding (however rudimentary), and opportunity” — as well as religious influences — impacted people’s decisions to engage in violence. Both republican and loyalist ex-combatants identified their main motivation for violence: they felt they had been attacked, and that they needed to defend themselves and their community. Among loyalists, Paisley did not emerge as a sympathetic figure. As is well known in Northern Ireland, many loyalists resent him for condemning their violent acts, especially if they perceived him as encouraging such acts. While they gave mixed opinions about his role in stirring up violence, “animosity towards Paisley was virtually universal,” and “Loyalist combatants in prison, who had undergone a religious conversion, found Paisley’s anti-peace rhetoric disturbing and complained.”

Given ex-combatants’ relative lack of regard for the role of religion fostering violence, it is unsurprising that most did not identify religion as a motivating factor in their work for peace. Some became more devout Catholics while in prison, or embraced a Protestant born-again experience. More often than not, these changes led former combatants to prioritize “personal piety” rather than peace activism. And, while some of these ex-combatants praised the earnest efforts of individual clergy, they were bitterly disappointed by the failure of the institutional churches to work for peace. So while they felt no religious motivation to promote peace themselves, they expected the churches should do so.

John Brewer, Religion, Civil Society, and Peace in Northern Ireland, Oxford University Press, 2014, 270pp., $39.99
John Brewer, Religion, Civil Society, and Peace in Northern Ireland, Oxford University Press, 2014, 270pp., $39.99

The failure of the institutional churches is an overriding theme of Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland. No other book has prompted as much soul-searching and discussion among Christian peace activists in Northern Ireland since Joseph Liechty and Cecelia Clegg’s 2001 Moving Beyond Sectarianism, the research for which fed into community-based adult “Education for Reconciliation” courses taught by the Irish School of Ecumenics, influenced the work of other organizations like Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland, and was mentioned by respondents to later research by the Irish School of Ecumenics as contributing to their personal commitments to Christian peacemaking. So far, Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland has been debated on BBC Radio Ulster’s major religion program and discussed at events such as the 4 Corners Festival in Belfast, a Christian festival organized by a group of clergy and laity. Many clergy are aware of the arguments of the book and have mentioned them to me during informal conversations during my own research. Debates about the book have often been emotional, with church leaders taking great pains to declare they “disagree with Brewer” in his assessment of the churches, with others just as passionately arguing that Christian peacemakers were abandoned by the institutional churches.

Pointing out the obvious links between Paisley’s violent rhetoric and actual violence, as Jordan has done, is one way to explore the relationship between religion and violence. The task of explaining how the institutional churches were implicated in violence, despite leaders who issued joint statements condemning violence and calling for peace, is more complex. The explanations have also proven controversial.

Brewer, Higgins, and Teeney argue that individual Christians who formed their own organizations and networks did the most effective work for peace during the Troubles and the peace process by engaging more effectively at the grassroots. They formed relationships with people at an individual level and nursed processes of personal transformation by creating safe spaces for discussion, self-discovery, and support. The authors’ finding coincides with the experiences of those interviewed in Ex-Combatants, Religion and Peace and highlights sociological factors that contributed to these individuals’ success: Small groups have more freedom and flexibility to develop radical ideas than large institutions. They also can move more quickly to respond to immediate needs. So, while church leaders were busy issuing statements that were largely ignored, networks of activists were busy on the ground. Some of the public controversy around the book could have been muted had the authors done more to highlight these structural features that diminished the churches’ effectiveness.

Beyond its condemnation of the institutional churches, Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland makes four key contributions to understanding religion, violence, and peace in Northern Ireland. First, it highlights the disproportionate presence of evangelicals in effective peacemaking. Evangelicals did much of the heavy work in critiquing the Calvinist concepts that have undergirded Northern Ireland’s wider Protestant identity, including depictions of Protestants as a “chosen people” who possessed a right to the “promised land.” These critiques led to public calls for repentance by evangelicals from groups such as Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland. The focus on evangelicals’ contributions to peacemaking corrects scholars’ over-emphasis on the destructiveness of Paisley’s fundamentalist evangelicalism, and their overly-optimistic assessments of ecumenical peacemaking. Second, it includes the most detailed analysis to-date of the role of individual Catholic clergy in brokering secret peace talks. It provides in particular new information and insights into how the clergy at Clonard Monastery brokered the talks that helped bring Sinn Féin into the political process. Third, it explores the significance of Methodists as mediators, arguing that as the smallest of the four “main churches” it had more freedom to take risks, for example by authorizing and supporting its clergy if they were willing to dialogue with people and groups the wider Protestant community considered “beyond the pale.” Finally, it argues that Christian discourse about relationships as the key to reconciliation has not aided the peace process because it has distracted Christian peacemakers from dismantling the social and political structures that fueled violence and that continue to perpetuate division.

Christian individuals and organizations built relationships, reworked theologies, and contributed to multiple small changes.

Despite their assessment that religion has been used to perpetuate violence and division, the authors of Ex-Combatants, Religion and Peace and Religion, Civil Society and Peace conclude that this need not always be so. In Northern Ireland, religious peacemaking did not mean praying and waiting for the Reverend Ian Paisley to surprise everyone and enter into government with Sinn Féin. Rather, Christian individuals and organizations built relationships, reworked theologies, and contributed to multiple small changes in the identities and perceptions of people at the grassroots level. Religious peacemakers often lacked the support of their institutional churches, to be sure, and they did not adequately address the structural aspects of conflict. But like Paisley, the additional steps they might one day take for peace could surprise us yet.

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