Debating the Churches’ Role in the Peace in Northern Ireland

This morning’s Sunday Sequence featured a substantial debate (about 35 minutes into the recorded programme) on a new book,Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland (Oxford University Press 2011), written by sociologists John Brewer, Gareth Higgins and Francis Teeney. The debate was framed in an opening vignette by presenter William Crawley in uncompromising terms, when he summed up its key message as: ‘the main churches here walked away from their moral responsibility to give leadership during the Troubles.’

The book was launched on Saturday at Clonard Monastery, and that’s where I got my copy, so I haven’t yet had time to read it. I think it’s always best to refrain from commenting on the content and merit of books that I have not read (there will be another time for that), but this morning’s debate was remarkable both for the degree of disagreement among the panellists, and for the substantial amount of time devoted to it.

The panel discussion lasted for 45 minutes, which allowed the five panellists, Fr Tim Bartlett, Denis Bradley, Rev Lesley Carroll, Rev John Dunlop and Brian Feeney, some time to make their views on the book known. Usually panel debates on Sunday Sequence are no longer than 15 minutes, so when there are multiple panellists it often means that people don’t have enough time to say what they think.

I hope the time devoted to the debate is some sort of indicator of how seriously Christians in Northern Ireland will evaluate the claims made in the book. I’m a Christian, and I work for the Irish School of Ecumenics (an institution that has a history of encouraging Christian engagement with the peace process), so questions about the role of the churches in the past and in our precariously peaceful present are important to me.

So for me, part of my interest in the book is motivated by what Carroll, near the end of the discussion, identified as one of the ‘key messages of the book’, namely, that ‘before the Troubles kicked off, the church didn’t understand the role it was playing in terms of [contributing to] the divisions.’

She said that now that Northern Ireland has emerged from the ‘other side’ of the Troubles, the book contends that the churches have ‘reverted to type.’ If that is the case, the churches ‘really need to pay attention to that’ and therefore ask themselves whether they can be playing a more positive social role in our present and future.

The debate opened with a recorded interview with Teeney, who claimed that the most effective Christian peacemakers were mavericks who acted largely without the knowledge or backing of their church institutions, and that it was a failure of leadership that the churches did not produce policies or strategies on how to engage more effectively to end the violence.

Most of the panellists disagreed strongly with various claims made in the book, with only Bradley offering an endorsement of the book’s overall argument, saying that, ‘this book gets it right. Its general analysis is the correct one.’

I think Bradley’s more positive assessment of the book is based largely on his agreement with the authors’ claim that religion has played a significant role in the violent history of Ireland. This doesn’t have to mean that people were killing each other over various differences in religious doctrine, but it does mean recognising that  religion has contributed to structuring our segregated society – for example, through promoting segregated education, discouraging ‘mixed marriages’, and the like. This is a sociological rather than a theological or devotional view of religion, and I think that Christians are naïve if they fail to recognise this particular insight from academia.

Feeney, on the other hand, was most outspoken in his criticism, stating plainly: ‘I didn’t like the book.’ Feeney also denied that religion or the churches were significant contributors to violence or to peace, at one point saying that the authors are ‘confusing an ethno-political dispute with an ethno-religious dispute.’ Feeney, it seems to me, doesn’t recognise as valid the sociological view of religion that I’ve presented above and indeed, he spent a significant part of his air time disparaging sociology.

Dunlop, who served for seven years as the convener of the Presbyterian Church’s Church and Government Committee, provided some interesting insights into what it was like to be involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations. But he said Teeney’s ‘polemical’ introduction to the debate and a lecture given by Brewer back in March had framed the debate about the book in too adversarial a manner, and could unfortunately keep people from ‘taking this book seriously.’

Dunlop added that he thought the book could have devoted more time to evaluating the positive grassroots contributions of religious peacemakers (although I would add that this has been done to some extent in other books, such as Ronald Wells’ Hope and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, Maria Power’s From Ecumenism to Community Relations, and my own Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland).

Bartlett thought that the book overstated the extent that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was unaware of the actions of priests such as Fr Alex Reid, and understated the ‘critical role of church leaders in modelling good relationships.’

Carroll said that a question ‘missing from the book’ was what the churches thought they were doing during the Troubles – especially if, as the authors contend – they were not ‘doing’ enough at an institutional level to promote peace.

I appreciated the robustness of the debate, and I hope it serves to get Christians talking – not just about what their churches did in the past – but how they can contribute to our future. Unfortunately, the book is available only in hardback, and the publisher’s price is a prohibitive £60.

But I also appreciated the remarks made by Rev Ken Newell and Rev Harold Good at Saturday’s launch. As appropriate for the event, both Newell and Good focused on the book’s recognition of Christian peacemakers – rather than the book’s condemnation of institutional failure.

Newell provided some perspective on the psychological processes of people working against the odds in the face of challenges like the violence in Ireland. Rather than choosing to retreat in despair, he said some people choose to confront their fears and their self-doubts and to take great personal risks to do what they think is right. He said that such people can provide hope in the midst of social despair, and he was glad that some of their stories had been told.

  • Framer

    The discussion (and book?) seemed to miss out Fr Faul’s key intervention in bringing an end to the hunger strikes while almost entirely ignoring Protestant paramilitary activity. Perhaps that was correctly due to seeing their violence as largely reactive.

    However what the authors in their harsh condemnations seem to have missed is that the IRA (as Brian Feeney reiterated) were only going to do what they were wired to do. ‘Armed Hibernians,’ as Bernadette Devlin called them, were never going to be influenced by clerics.

    Where we all may have failed was attempting to directly discuss and undermine the certainties of nationalism. But if John Hume is sanctified for annunciating and following his European/EU ideals, and nobody noticed he wanted to move one frontier around within that European community, then perhaps none of us could have achieved anything.

    The IRA campaign had simply to wear itself out over 35 years.

  • Roy Walsh

    Framer, you seem to have missed the key intervention of the UVF in making Irish violence ‘largely reactive’
    The modern version of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was formed. The UVF issued a statement in May 1966 containing the threat that, “known IRA men will be executed mercilessly and without hesitation”. On 7 May 1966 The UVF carried out a petrol bomb attack on a Catholic owned bar and off-licence in Upper Charleville Street in the Shankill Road area of Belfast. The attackers missed their intended target and set fire to the home of Matilda Gould (77), a Protestant civilian, who lived next door to the public house. Gould was severely injured in the attack and died on 27 June 1966 as a resulted of her injuries. On 27 May 1966 the UVF shot and mortally wounded John Scullion (28), a Catholic civilian, in the Clonard area of west Belfast. Scullion died from his injuries on 11 June 1966. On 26 June 1966 the UVF shot three Catholic civilians in Malvern Street in the Shankill area of Belfast. One of those shot, Peter Ward (18), died at the scene and the two other men were seriously injured. On 28 June 1966 the Northern Ireland government moved to declare the UVF an illegal organisation.
    The issue of who is to blame for the most recent conflict and the role of the ‘Christian’ churches in it will be interesting to read, I look forward to the input of John Brewer who lectured me many years past but please do not fall into the trap of making out that loyalist violence was reactive when clearly it wasn’t

  • ThomasMourne

    This morning’s discussion reinforces the view that N. Ireland may be full of christian churches but very short of Christianity.

    Most church leaders/spokespersons like to pretend that sectarianism does not exist, despite the fact that it seeps into every aspect of our daily [and especially Sunday] life.

    There was certainly a political element to the ‘troubles’ but sectarian hatred was a bigger driving force for paramilitaries and their apologists.

  • While I dont believe the dispute was about “religion”
    The position of Catholic & Protestant Churches would have been “easier” if the political beliefs of people were totally detached from their political or constitutional beliefs.
    It would have been impossible or nearly impossible to have condemned violence itself without repudiating or seeming to repudiate the political beliefs.
    All for vell for this time of the year for four Church leaders to make joint statements which were both heart felt and bland………but necessarily thats as far as people can go.

    Very few people really do “absolutism” in “war”. (and no churchman would really have seen his people on the wrong side of Good/Evil for their political beliefs). Those that publicly stated a nuanced approach to the Troubles eg Cardinal O’Fiach were vilified as “Provo Priests”.
    Even Fr Faul was branded as such in 1973 when he supported internees by calling for boycotts of the council elections in May and June.
    So nothing less that outright condemnation of people, actions and beliefs would have satisfied unionists.
    And I dont think any Protestant Churches would be removing Army or Police affiliations.

    Of course people will say “ah its not the same”. And FOR THEM thats certainly the case.
    But Churches cant re-write History even if they are encouraged to do so.
    They reflected the reality that they……like their flocks ……were “sometimes” supportive of legal or illegal violence.

  • HeinzGuderian

    It wasn’t the churches fault…………………OH WAIT………

  • HeinzGuderian

    (thanks Mick,I feel naked without it ) 😉

  • BluesJazz

    “And I dont think any Protestant Churches would be removing Army or Police affiliations.”

    Baffled by this statement. Is the British Army ‘Protestant’ ? Cromwells ‘New Model Army’ may have been. But do recruitment offices in England and Scotland and Wales make sure that recruits are not unreformed papists? What about the Gurkhas? Are they ‘protestant’ Buddhists?

    The PIRA murder squads were Roman Catholic, their UDA/UVF counterparts were Protestant. The Army was neither. They were piggy in the middle, agnostic if you like. But they helped end the conflict here more than any priest or pastor.
    Perhaps the churches were the problem. If we were all agnostic there would have been no conflict here or elsewhere on our tiny pale blue dot.

  • BluesJazz,
    I have no idea if your bafflement is “real” or synthetic.
    Churchmen condemned violence and they routinely did……perhaps TOO routinely ….

    As I pointed out I dont buy that it was about religion……but clearly there was a link to the people in Catholic pews being sympathetic to a republican/nationalist……Irish analysis.
    And a link between the people in Church of Ireland/Methodist/Baptist/Presbyterian pews were sympathetic to a unionist/loyalist….British analysis.

    A visit to say Armagh Cathedral (Church of Ireland) with its British insignia and (properly) book of condolence along the right hand side of the Church tends to confirm this.

    In itself ………the poor old British Tommy and RUC Trevor as “piggy in the middle” is a view usually not expressed by Catholic churchmen. For two reasons…….clearly its not an experience with which their flock would sympathise.
    And the second reason……they dont believe it either.

    The Churches therefore could not go beyond sincere/routine condemnation. The Churchmen were not a detached group. They were OF this place as much as their congregations.
    Deep down we all condemn violence……..but not absolutely. There were incidents at the time and even deaths we celebrated. The Churchmen were no different.

  • Turgon

    One of the problems here is that the gospel message is fundamentally divisive. Traditional Roman Catholic theology as I understand it claims that there is no salvation outwith the RC church. In contrast Protestant churches almost all maintain that without a specific personal salvation one cannot be saved.

    As such Christianity at its core is about division: between those going to heaven and those not (Protestants believe this is through no good works or actions of their own and actually Catholicism is not that far removed from this position in my understanding). The difference is on the means of obtaining that salvation.

    If churches and their adherents believe this there is an imperative on them to state this and evangelise to that effect. That creates division but since Christians believe immortal souls are at stake they have no option.

    No churches in Northern Ireland ever supported violence or condoned killers. A few rogue priests and ministers did it seems, but the doctrines of no church mainstream or otherwise ever supported violence. There is a fundamental dishonesty in demanding that churches should have “done more” they did what they should: promote their core message which does inlcude Thou shalt not kill etc.

    It may suit some to demand that the churches should have done more. Those tend almost exclusively to be the ecumenical fringe (often ecumenical lunatic fringe) and those inside and outside religious bodies fundamentally opposed to traditional Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism.

    Very few church leaders had a mandate to promote what were really political positions: certianly extremely few ecumenists. It must be noted that the likes of Rev Dr. John Dunlop, Lesley Carroll etc. had absolutely no mandate to promote political positions and when they talk of “peace” it was a profoundly political position not merely opposing killing people. They wanted society changed in a certain political fashion to support his concept of “peace.” Practically all the other peace promoting clerics were the same.

    Feeney on the other hand did actually have a mandate at one stage which makes his (highly negtaive) views the most relevant.

    These sorts of debates tend to be those outside the church denouncing those in the church for “not doing more” and a few ecumenicals trying to defend what they did (buying into he basic dishonesty of the accusers). The vast majority of religious people in Northern Ireland will simply ignore this sort of highly politicised ecumenical nonsense. That probbaly annoys the sociologists and also the ecumenicals: the rest of us frankly do not care. As such the debate should probably have been briefer and angrier: ie this is nonsense and dignifing it with discussion is inappropriate

    That said such a strategy would mean that tha peace procerssors and their academic friends would have fewer opportunities to promote their books. Coming up to Christmas I suppose a few sales of £60 books might help the odd academic.

    Oh yes and for the ecumenicals tempted to denounce others for not promoting the ecumenicals very politicised peace: remember Judge not lest you be judged.

  • As always Turgon gets to the point.
    But for the record Catholics do believe that there is salvation outside the Church. Even those of us brought up in the 1950s/1960s were not encouraged to believe different.
    To return to the theme
    Im intrigued about what positive, accurate and above all pragmatic speech could have been made by a Catholic Churchman in the 1970s.
    “Violence is wrong….but obviously not in an absolute sense………but violence by “our” people is worse than violence by themmuns because they have law and order on their side. Therefore our people are going to Hell and their people are going to heaven. Now of course we will all look a bit silly if violence by our people is retrospectively endorsed by the electorate ……….but if it is…..after say 1998……it will be evidence that “our” God is lesser than “their” God and Catholics are intrinsically more evil”

    What is the positive, accurate and above all pragmatic message that a Protestant Churchman could give
    “Violence is wrong…..but obviously not in an absolute sense……..and as you see from the trappings in the church building, we kinda accept that locally and globally, violence works and we owe our position to that. Violence by “our” side we deplore except of course by our people in the security forces because they are morally superior to the people who arent in the security forces. Yeah sure there have been mistakes and errors of judgement but this should not blind us to the fact that this is about right and wrong……..and there are more of our people on the “right” side than themmuns. Its highly unlikely that the Catholics will ever retrospectively endorse violece……but if they do we will cross that bridge when we come to it…….and anyway it will prove that we are morally superior anyway”.

    Whether crudely articulated like that or not. …that was the positionof the Churches.
    Necessarily at Christmas time…..joint messages (do I recall even Rev Ian Paisley AND Cardinal O’Fiach on Downtown Radios Tommy Sands Show?) produce a bland message…..a common denominator that would pass.
    So what on earth is the point of finding a joint message now………..forty years too late?

  • Well, shouldn’t Christians be turning the other cheek, rather than fighting? Doesn’t the parable of the good Samaritan show that people different from you, people in other communities, may be better than you and your fellow churchmen? (After all, the Judeans despised the Samaritans as much as today many hate travellers.) So a truly Christian Protestant would say that Catholics are better than Protestants. And a truly Christian Catholic would say that Protestants are better than Catholics.

  • Turgon

    The issue is not good or bad in Christianity. It is the means of salvation. Paul said “Of sinners I am the chief.” This – the core issue of Christianity- is not really political. As such the churches should be busying themselves regarding this not regarding political issues.

    Furthermore it is highly important that God is not on one side or another in Northern Ireland. Religious people may be on one side or another or in the middle but God is not. As such there is not a specific Christian position. In actual fact it is usually the liberal protestant ecumenists who try to claim that Christianity clearly implies one set of political positions in NI. Most other people from both sides do not dare to suggest what is right beyond simple statements of the obvious from a Christian perspective like murdering innocent people is wrong.

    I suspect it is precisely that reluctance to make claims one way or another which so infuriates some in the religious liberal dissident community.

  • I think “good” Catholics and “good” Protestants would tend to think that we are all equal………and although Im no theologian thats how I think they would interpret seeing Christ in each other.
    But surely we have all had our Good Samaritan experiences…..perhaps in the summer of 1983 with the combination of a broken arm, a heavily pregnant wife a flat tyre and a helpful patrol of the Ulster Defence Regiment.
    We each have our own or several examples.
    Thats the problem with Human Decency…..we tend to find it in places that are not necessarily in our comfort zone………..which is surely why slagging off Protestants, Catholics, Athiests and Agnostics is not exactly a good idea.
    Shame on people who would do that.

  • BluesJazz

    FJH, indeed..

    We should teach about religion, if only because religion is such a salient force in world politics and such a potent driver of lethal conflict. We need more and better instruction in comparative religion (and I’m sure you’ll agree with me that any education in English literature is sadly impoverished if the child can’t take allusions from the King James Bible). But faith schools don’t so much teach about religion as indoctrinate in the particular religion that runs the school. Unconscionably, they give children the message that they belong specifically to one particular faith, usually that of their parents, paving the way, at least in places such as Belfast and Glasgow, for a lifetime of discrimination and prejudice.
    Psychologists tell us that, if you experimentally separate children in any arbitrary way – say, dress half of them in green T-shirts and half in orange – they will develop in-group loyalty and outgroup prejudice. To continue the experiment, suppose that, when they grow up, greens only marry greens and oranges only marry oranges. Moreover, “green children” only go to green schools and “orange children” to orange schools. Carry on for 300 years and what have you got? Northern Ireland, or worse. Religion may not be the only divisive power that can propel dangerous prejudices down through many generations (language and race are other candidates) but religion is the only one that receives active government support in the form of schools.

  • GarethHiggins

    As one of the co-authors of ‘Religion, Civil Society, and Peacemaking in Northern Ireland’, I’m grateful to see a conversation about the issues raised in the book here on Slugger. I was largely disappointed, however, in the panel discussion, which seemed to continually return to one critical focus of the book at the expense of its wider narrative: i.e. what might be seen as an all too typically northern Irish emphasis on complaint (the panel seemed to devote most of its time to resisting the book’s assertion that churches at the institutional level did not provide the kind of leadership that might have helped engender change on the part of their members, as if this was a personal attack on the members of the panel, all of whom were themselves involved as individuals), while a large part of the book is actually a sociological analysis of what church people may have actually got right in their efforts to address a rapidly moving and dangerous situation. I point out both what I perceive as the failures and achievements of church figures not out of superior judgement nor self-aggrandizement, but as a fellow traveler who believes in the possibility of churches to be agents of change for the common good.

    To respond specifically to a comment made earlier, I’m not happy that that academic publishers charge so much for their product. Anyone who has published with an academic house will tell you, this does not serve the author’s bank balance, but is rooted in what I consider to be an outdated system of library purchase and exchange. I hope this will change in the near future – there is no need to charge commercially uninviting rates in the context of the kind of economies of scale permitted by ebooks and print on demand. I would also echo Denis Bradley’s suggestion that the book, or at least some of the ideas in the book, could be used as the basis for some further conversations/gatherings/conferences, not so we can engage in further complaint or whataboutery, but take a serious look at what religious figures in a still highly religious society could contribute to the post-conflict period, rooted in an analysis of what was done and left undone in the past.

  • Barnshee

    FJH 1745

    “But for the record Catholics do believe that there is salvation outside the Church. Even those of us brought up in the 1950s/1960s were not encouraged to believe different”

    Really perhaps you can explain why the (mixed marriage prod ) mother is told by her (worried) 8 year old that she cannot “take the bread of life” and thus “cannot go to heaven”

    (North Coast primary school last week )

    Same area Polish Children (probably by mistake) at state school Treatened -No first communion without transfer to Roman Catholic school

    Perhaps you could square the reality with your allegation that ” for the record Catholics do believe that there is salvation outside the Church”

  • Seamuscamp


    I haven’t read the book so I won’t comment on it. But there is a basic weakness in your thesis. You seem to be arguing that leadership must have failed because some people turned to violence. You ignore the many people who didn’t turn to violence because of their religious beliefs. Given the environment in which I grew up, it would have been truly miraculous if teaching at school and preaching in church had convinced everyone (even the many rejecting other aspects of religious belief) that they should be passive in the face of provocation. Personally I think your belief in the role of leadership is divorced from reality .


    I don’t know what experience you have in respect of faith schools. Certainly comparative religion was an important subject at my faith school 60 years ago. Can I assume it was an important element in non-faith schools? As to religion being “a potent driver of lethal conflict”, so too is anti-religion (eg Pol Pot), atheism (Hitler), Communism (Mao), imperialism (France etc), ethics (US Civil War). So we should of course study all of these so as to realise that any belief system can be perverted or manipulated.


    As FJH says above, Catholic teaching is clear that non-Catholics can attain salvation. Probably the definitive statement is in Paul VI’s Papal Encyclical Lumen Gentium; Paras 15 and 16 says that salvation is possible for all Christians, for Jews, for Mohommedans, for those who seek the unknown God through images, and even those “who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.”

    This doctrine is difficult for many Catholics to comprehend or even accept – but that doesn’t alter its force. The key to salvation is to live a good life; it isn’t enough to believe for “as the body without the soul is dead so also faith without good works is dead”.