‘The Churches in Northern Ireland are Uninterested in Post-Violence Reconstruction’ – Prof. John Brewer

‘The churches in Northern Ireland are uninterested in post-violence reconstruction.’ A surprising statement from a key speaker at the conclusion of a conference called ‘Journey Towards Healing: Trauma and Spirituality – an International Dialogue,’ held 10-11 March at the Europa Hotel in Belfast.

But these were the words of Professor John Brewer, a sociologist at the University of Aberdeen, whose book on the role of churches in Northern Ireland’s peace process will be published later this year.

Brewer shared his conviction, based on years of research on Northern Ireland’s churches, that religious peacebuilding has been the preserve of a few courageous individuals, who received little or no support for their efforts from the ‘institutional’ churches.

He argued that because the institutional churches did not have a strong ‘prophetic’ voice during the Troubles, they ‘lack moral legitimacy’ for leading – or even just participating – in a discussion about how Northern Ireland can move towards a better, shared future.

The Journey Towards Healing conference continues this weekend, culminating with some of the keynote speakers discussing these and other issues on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence tomorrow morning from 8.30 a.m. Tomorrow’s BBC Morning Service will also be broadcast from the conference at 10.15 a.m. It will be a reflective service led by Rev John Dunlop and Ray Helmick SJ.

Brewer’s address was provocative, especially coming at the end of two days of proceedings in which practitioners and scholars from Africa, Central and South America, Bangladesh, Australia, Israel, North America, and closer to home shared insights from their work with people who had experienced conflict-related traumas.

Many of the conference delegates, like Anglican priest Michael Lapsley, an anti-apartheid campaigner who lost both his hands in a letter bomb, stressed the importance of hope and the role that religion or spirituality can play in helping victims to heal, or to move from ‘victim to survivor to victor’, as he put it.

Like many at the conference, Brewer expressed concern that no one seems to be leading a sensitive, constructive discussion about how Northern Ireland might deal with its past. Or, to use the phrase from his book Peace Processes: A Sociological Approach, no one is leading a discussion about ‘how we remember.’

Brewer said he yearns to see the institutional churches instigating public discourses on topics such as the balance between righteous anger and forgiveness, and the role of compassion and empathy. He lamented that:

‘There is no public discourse on forgiveness, hope, compassion, resentment or anger. … Hope is not a word in the lexicon of the churches. … There has been no religious discourse in Northern Ireland on human rights issues, truth recovery, transitional justice themes like reparation, memory, or the restorative integration of ex-combatants.’

Further, Brewer said he would like to see churches help people in their congregations to ‘deconstruct’ the ethno-religious myths that have fuelled division and conflict for so long.

But he said there was little evidence of this happening, apart from the brave work of a select few, and that:

‘The churches are uninterested in post-violence reconstruction. … Are the churches capable of doing anything anymore, even if they wanted to? The institutional churches continue to evade their responsibility in the public sphere. … The churches’ futures are diminished by their failures to take responsibility for the past.’

Brewer was of course challenged on some of these points. The BBC’s William Crawley, who facilitated a panel discussion immediately after Brewer’s talk, pointed out that many of the churches had, for example, produced discussion documents on human rights. And some church leaders have discussed the issues Brewer mentioned on the BBC’s Sunday Sequence programme.

Brewer responded that discussion documents were usually buried rather than taken seriously in the public sphere. And he asked, ‘What about the people who don’t listen to Sunday Sequence?’

Brewer also stood by his claim that religious peacebuilding remains the work of motivated individuals. He said that many of these individuals are now burnt out, nearing retirement, or already retired – and there didn’t seem to be a rising generation of motivated religious peacebuilders to take their place.

In an increasingly secular society, it might be tempting to ask ‘so what’ if the institutional churches are not involved in post-violence reconstruction? With their ambiguous past, can they really bring anything constructive to Northern Ireland’s wider discussion about the future?

During the Question and Answer time, an American delegate remarked at the absence of politicians and policy makers at the conference, and wondered what kind of leadership they were showing around the issues Brewer had raised. He said that while it again seemed to be religious or spiritual individuals, rather than the church institutions, who were at this conference initiating the discussions, that perhaps this was a start.

But if there really is a lack of engagement from not just the institutional churches, but also politicians and policy makers, how far can these conversations get us?




  • Another week…..another Conference.
    I cant understand the surprise.
    He is absolutely right. The Churches are not interested in the FORMALITY/RITUAL of “Post Violence Reconstruction”. There is no pressing groundswell demand for this from real people……it is driven almost entirely by academic interest and curiousity.
    Those of us who actually lived thru the Conflict are not interested in seminars, conferences, workshops, weekends in Corrymeela, or dishing out more money to the plurality of groups representing etc………and the inevitable input of ex-prisoners who seem to be the font of all wisdom.
    Those of us who managed to get thru the Conflict without getting killed or seriously injured (and yes we WERE all affected) and we managed not to kill or seriously injure anyone else were always interested in Conflict Resolution…..before we actually knew Conflict Resolution existed.
    Most of us…..the vast majority are just interested in getting on with our interupted lives without a backward glance.
    Thank God for Prof Brewer for daring to say the unsayable.

  • backstage

    The position claimed by most churches is one of leadership rather than responding to what their flocks are demanding – the churches are hardly known for that. Surely the prof’s point is that the churches should be interested in what their beliefs say about post-conflict resolution and seek to guide their followers and the wider public? And given that they were fairly quiet throughout the conflict I read an implied (or maybe not so implied) criticism that they should have been more vocal about the role of their beliefs in the actual conflict.

    Thank Dawkins for Professor Brewer.

  • Turgon

    FJH is quite right here.

    The churches have little interest in this industry of “peace building” because it actually has remarkably little to do with them.

    The Troubles were not a religious conflict but an essentially ethnic one (the lack of real ethnic differences is irrelevant, perceived difference is the issue). The IRA did not murder the people at Knigsmills because the victims disagreed with transubstantiation. Equally the Loughinisland murderers were not driven by an objection to the victims’ failure to accept the priesthood of all believers.

    Throughout the Troubles the churches almost without exception opposed all forms of terrorism and indeed spoke out against both major incidents and more minor ones like attacks on churches etc.

    As such the churches are not really that relevant to the issue.

    A further vital point that the peace process industry ignore is that the overwhelming majority of people here regard themselves as innocent of the guilt from the Troubles. Eames Bradley and the professional and international industry might try to tell us different but the reality is that the overwhelming majority of people have nothing to apologise for. I do not entirely agree with FJH about us all being affected: but even if we were; being affected does not make us all guilty of anything.

    The members of the assorted churches and the churches themselves do not need to take part in some sort of bogus reconciliation process because other than valid theological differences they were never not reconciled. Eames Bradley and co; John Dunlop and the Corrymeela brigade may all want that but that does not make it so. We are not all guilty. Within churches people are themselves responsible for their actions before God – that is a vital concept in Protestantism but also one in Catholicism.

    Frequently the idea of reconciliation is a cover for two things which very many in NI oppose. Those are us all being guilty of the Troubles apart bizarrely from the actually guilty who having accepted some of their guilt are, perversely, elevated to some form of secular sainthood.

    The second thing it is a cover for is ecumenism. If some wish to pursue an ecumenical position that is fine. However, using wrongly invented guilt about the Troubles as a bludgeon to try to make others accept ecumenism is unacceptable: and thankfully has thus far proved completely ineffective.

  • Nunoftheabove

    So very little to contribute to the solution, so very very little evidence of any acknowledgement of their contribution to the problem in the first place. The only ‘threat’ secularism poses is to the role of the churches in a society that is catching itself on and is increasingly doing better without them, thanks. Long long may it continue and enough already with these unctuous and self-interested superstition-riddled opportunists and self-appointed spokespeople for the credulous, the intolerant and the morally bankrupt.

  • Id just like to clarify that when I say we were all affected, I did not mean to imply it was to the same degree.
    Clearly the families on Bloody Friday or Bloody Sunday were more affected than I was. I was a very low level and insignificant victim. And there were probably tens of thousands like me.
    But likewise I do not have the same insight that ex-prisoners seem to have (they certainly seemed to be flavour of the month with my new friends at the recent Ethical Remembering course).
    I dont think my views should be sidelined in favour of those various and variable “Victims Groups” (as Ive said before they speak many voices). Nor do I want be views sidelined in favour of ex-prisoners (ie ex-terrorists).
    The churches would be doing us all a favour if they gave a wide berth to such people.
    Between them a “select” band of victims and ex-terrorists seem to get too much of a hearing from the gullible.

  • The Word

    I see Gladys is still stirring things up.

    I don’t think all Churches sent out clear messages about peace during the Troubles.

    I toured ones that had flags hanging all over them, and that was certainly not a peaceful signal. That was taking sides.

  • I dont of course have a problem with Ecumenism.
    But I do have a problem with the “we are all innocent…..we are all guilty” analysis of the Troubles. That the broader communities are made responsible for the behaviour of a comparative few.
    Or the thinly disguised assertion that those of us who dont enthusastically buy into Conflict Resolution are somewhere in a form of denial or even “worse” than the ex-terrorists who have acknowledged their “guilt” or at least “responsibility”.
    Or the Creative Ambiguity nonsense that everything is 50-50 so dont analyse it closely or draw any other conclusion than that propagated by the Golden Halo.

  • Zig70

    Nun – Ulster is hardly going to be secular anytime soon. What you could hope for is a mix of styles without the state forcing you to partake in religion. The only example i can think of is Sunday shopping hours and some state schools.
    Are you being forced to worship anywhere?
    The churches did preach exclusion at the time of the troubles. Most of them have moved away from this and we need to frown on the ones that haven’t yet.

  • “No one is leading a discussion about ‘how we remember.”

    That’s the heart of it. The churches MUST risk saying some uncomfortable things to their own people and to each other about how to remember helpfully in the Northern Ireland context.

  • Rory Carr

    A good healing session with Archbishop Tutu should soon sort everbody out. Ever after they will harmlessly walk around in a zombie-like trance bearing a rictus grin of ardent love upon their visages, unapproachable by children and small animals alike. They will shop at Morrisons on Thursdays and never incur parking fines. At election time they will vote Alliance or Green Party or, in a spirit of generosity, possibly for both. They will send text messages to Hugo Duncan commending his playlist. Heaven’s gates will be open to them for they will already have suffered Hell.

  • “the Corrymeela brigade”

    All sounds a bit military. Ray Davey, one of the founders of Corrymeela, had a close shave during WWII. Ray was a military chaplain; he was taken prisoner; his party left Dresden one day before it was burnt to the ground. I first met him when he was a Presbyterian chaplain at Queens University in Belfast. IIRC Catholic students had limited chaplaincy accommodation at the time so Ray and his colleagues offered the Catholic chaplains some hospitality.

    The Coleraine group I did voluntary work with was a sort of offshoot of the Corrymeela brigade; a good company rather than a battalion. The ‘platoon buffoons’ may mock this collegiate activity but I think the work we did built great social capital in the district. I spent some time this morning on the internet listening to one of our former members (from about 30 years ago) give evidence to a House of Lords Committee. Her Mum had rung me earlier; she knew I would like to know.

  • 241934 john brennan

    The concept and need for Human Rights is as old as humanity itself. In Genesis, when Cain murdered his brother Abel it is recorded: “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground like a voice calling for vengeance”.

    Later in Exodus, the Mosaic Law was summarized in the Decalogue – 10 words from God – the 10 Commandments, forever the basis of moral law.

    Then some 800 years before Christ the prophet Michah gave a simple summary of the law: “Act justly, love tenderly, and live humbly in the presence of God”.

    Christ further simplified it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

    Because of our human dignity, our Human Rights are inalienable. Our human dignity comes from being God’s children – all Jock Thomson’s bairns.

    The Churches well understand this and probably don’t see a need to re-invent the wheel.

    Other legislators tend to confuse Human Rights and Citizens’ Rights and so end up with a dog’s breakfast, when trying to incorporate both in a single law code.

    In the hierarchy of law, Citizens’ Rights must necessarily be subordinate to, and based upon, Human Rights.

    Citizens’ Rights, without regard to over-arching Human Rights, means a State or Party can assume the power to bestow or withdraw citizens’ rights, even the basic right to life itself. For example during periods of the French Revolution, the rule of Oliver Cromwell, under Communism etc.

    This is also the reason why Sinn Fein is so fond of speaking of citizen’s rights, because they hold that citizen’s may even forfeit the right to life itself, in the furtherance of the republican ‘cause’ (the end justifies the means) – which is why the term “IRA murder” is never used within the party – and why the murder of Jean McConville is never described as “a crime” or “a gross Human Rights abuse.”

  • Tweedybird

    Gladys has a very good point, moreover, the contribution of Prof Brewer has hit it on the nail. I believe religion had a major factor to the troubles ( wither we would like to admit it or not), with the silence of the churches deafening. The posts of fitzjameshorse1745 are spot on especially “Those of us who managed to get thru the Conflict” and “Between them a “select” band of victims and ex-terrorists seem to get too much of a hearing from the gullible.” etc, I could not have put it more eloquently myself.

  • Just a note on the comment made from the floor from one of the delegates, which I quote in the main body of the text, about the lack of politicians and policy makers present at the conference. It has been pointed out to me that the people involved in creating the new Victims and Survivors Service were at the conference throughout. And the conference was funded by OFMDFM, and Journey Towards Healing was conceived and developed within the Victims Unit of OFMDFM back in 2002.

  • Where were the hellfire sermons saying, “You must love your Catholic neighbours as yourself, or burn in Hell. You should love your republican enemies, or suffer eternal torment”? Or where were the priest-led missions to do good works helping Protestant neighbours?

    The point of the Sermon on the Mount was that people who are different from you might actually be better than you. (Samaritans in Judea were looked down upon like the Roma are today.) So Protestant ministers should preach that the Catholics are/can be better than them, and Catholic priests should say that the Protestants are better than them.