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Northern Ireland – still a religious divide

Malachi O’Doherty - The Tablet - Mon, Jun 12th 2023

Northern Ireland – still a religious divide
In Derry’s Catholic Bogside a mural depicts Fr Edward Daly holding a white handkerchief in front a fatally injured victim of Bloody alamy/hemis, patrick frilet

The 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement have seen the steady decline of religious belief and practice in Northern Ireland – but the Churches continue to have a significant role to play in ending the blight of sectarian hatred. 

On the day of the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, 22 May 1998, I was with a television crew in east Belfast setting up an interview with a young man from the area. We were sounding out local opinion. A group of men across the road from us drinking at tables outside a bar didn’t like having a camera so close to them. They hurried over, looking like they had serious business in mind. 

“What are you guys up to?”

One of them stood by the tripod and rested a proprietary elbow on the camera. 

“We’re going to take this camera and burn your car if you don’t start answering questions,” he said. Then he turned to the terrified young lad. “Who are you?”

If anyone should be speaking for the neighbourhood, he seemed to suggest, it should be someone with his endorsement, and this boy didn’t have it. Even as the full horror of our situation was beginning to sink in, a loyalist with sweeter manners arrived.

He saved us. He had the bearing of an educated professional, someone unlikely to be socialising with these grunts, but with the power to call them off. I recognised him from the television as an articulate spokesman for the loyalist cause, one of those who would rationalise past violence while professing to be working conscientiously to prevent it returning.

And he knew me, had seen me on television. He put a friendly hand on my shoulder and took me aside. He said that loyalists had been impressed by things I had said in a recent television documentary about the Christian Brothers, the Catholic teaching order which ran the secondary school I had gone to. Really? I had talked about the sadistic canings that some of the brothers inflicted and about their promotion of Gaelic sport and culture. Within the Christian Brother tradition, Catholicism was inseparable from Gaelic culture. Class prayers were said in Irish. I remember boys caught playing five-a-side football being punished.

But that had been a long time ago. And now we were being spared a beating, the theft of our camera and the burning of our car because I had spoken out publicly about the Christian Brothers and their vicious ways. Really? Fine by me. But for years I had been writing articles and giving interviews to foreign journalists, assuring them that the Troubles were not about religion – and here were loyalist thugs being stood down because the guy they were about to beat to a pulp turned out to be: anti-Catholic!

I wasn’t complaining. I’d have cursed the Pope and Mother Teresa if I’d thought it would have saved me a thumping. The anomaly is that these guys did not impress me as being likely churchgoers. In other parts of the world where there are sectarian conflicts, militants tend to be ardent believers. Some killers in Northern Ireland were religious. A small number of priests were known to have blessed IRA men before they went out to kill. Some hard loyalists have professed to be born again Christians. And theology has been close to the heart of the dispute at times. The Rev’d Ian Paisley, a major irritant and rabble rouser for most of his career, always argued that the IRA was intent on bringing Northern Ireland under the control of the papacy. 

But that was always nonsense, wasn’t it? Yes, Gerry Adams went to Mass; yes, priests of the Redemptorist Order facilitated truce negotiations between the Provisional and Official IRA movements. One priest, Fr Alec Reid, had carried handwritten messages from Gerry Adams to Secretary of State Tom King in 1987 expressing interest in a peace process. But still, surely sensible people saw that this conflict was not really about religion, even though the Protestant Orange Order parades were so often the source of tension, the stimulus for violence.

You watched the marches and you saw that the men of the lodges in their bowler hats and sashes were often respectable churchy types themselves. But they were led by rabble bands, that thundered their drums as they passed Catholic churches and Catholic streets, bands that sometimes dedicated their drums to the memory of loyalist killers. 

Tony Blair has said the Northern Ireland problem was basically quite simple. There were two factions. One faction thought the region should be Irish; the other thought the region should be British. Both of these ideas were entitled to be respected and the political task was to find a compromise between them. In short, the problem was sovereignty.

The guys who threatened to burn our car on the day of the referendum also saw it as simple. They were Prods and we were probably Taigs – in fact most of us weren’t, though I was – and we should get out of their area. Religion served as the label by which people of different communities and constitutional preferences could be distinguished from each other. And religion is still an ingredient in the toxic mix. Even though Northern Ireland, albeit at a slower pace than the Republic or the rest of the UK, is rapidly secularising, the religious labels still serve to identify people here as being on one side or the other of a sectarian divide.

And it is not just the other side that takes you for a Prod or a Taig. Each of the four major political parties canvass for votes almost exclusively from within one religious culture: Sinn Fein and the SDLP take nearly all their votes from people who were baptised Catholic and educated in a Catholic school; the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party take theirs almost exclusively from people who grew up in a Protestant religious and educational culture.

And the towns and cities of Northern Ireland are still divided into Protestant and Catholic areas, many demarcated by “peace walls”. The older Catholic areas of Belfast and Derry are still gathered round massive twin-spired churches and cathedrals that the poor huddled masses had paid for. The older Protestant areas are still gathered round the big industries that, like the big churches, are doing rather less business than they used to.

So religion still characterises the communal rift. But is there anything the Churches themselves can do about it? The first step is to recognise that the problem is not only about sovereignty. The communities are divided by religion, territory, education, sport, culture, political party organisation, Brexit and whatever they choose to squabble over next. Don’t blame religion for all of it – but don’t wholly absolve it.

The least the Churches can do is to decline to be part of the problem. Most Catholics have never really given credence to the Protestant wariness of the Church. They have only ever seen that suspicion as ill-informed bigotry. Yet Protestants saw their fears of “Rome Rule” vindicated in the Irish constitution awarding a special place to the Catholic Church. They saw the erosion of their congregations, especially in the Republic, when bishops awarding dispensations for mixed marriages insisted that the children of such marriages be raised as Catholics. They saw the Catholic Church in the South given responsibility for large sections of health care and education. And in the North they saw that IRA members were given church funerals, fostering suspicion that the Catholic Church was soft on terrorism and saw the killers as their own.

The Catholic Church should acknowledge that many, perhaps most, of its school pupils, though baptised are not practising Catholics. It should find its own level rather than seek to perpetuate a Catholic identity through its massive school system. And it should be wary of allowing its schools to be the seedbed of Gaelic culture. It is not the job of a religious institution to promote the Irish language and Gaelic sports. At the same time, Protestant schools could do more to facilitate Gaelic sport and culture and help to uncouple it from a Church. This is difficult of course while the Gaelic Athletic Association, the largest sporting institution in Ireland, organises teams at parish level.


Both the Catholic Church and the state (de facto Protestant) systems should lift their opposition to integrated education. The Catholic Church should not see the integrated sector as a threat to its own when its own is far bigger than the actual spread of Catholic religious practice warrants. And it should be generous enough to provide Catholic pastoral support to every child who wants it, whatever school they go to. Competing with the integrated sector and even disparaging it is less about cultivating the faith than about preserving the institutional Church.

Secularisation and the steady decline of formal religious belief and practice should, theoretically, help to diffuse and blur the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland. As well as the growth of the integrated education sector there has been a big increase in so-called mixed marriages and the number of children with parents from different communities. While the major parties remain homogeneously factional and thrive on sectarian deadlock the middle ground in politics is growing. The Churches can develop their own analyses of sectarianism. They should come back again and again to reminding their congregations of the “scandal” of division. They should present an ideal, to those who are still listening to them, of a future society which has moved beyond sectarianism.

I doubt they will get through to thugs like those who threatened to burn our car 25 years ago but there was a small hopeful sign in what happened that day. The man who called off the heavies did so because he thought he and I were of like mind. We weren’t. I had taken umbrage with Catholic education because of my personal experience of it. He saw the Catholic Church as the institution which bonded together a rival community, perhaps more effectively than any institution bonded his own. The Catholic Church might ask itself if it should be shoring up cultural and political identity in a divided society – or if it actually has the simpler, easier job of teaching the Gospel to those who still listen.


Malachi O’Doherty is a writer and broadcaster. His latest book, How To Fix Northern Ireland, is published on 6 April by Atlantic Books.

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