Ex- Combatants, Religion and Peace in Northern Ireland: Book Review

brewerexcombatantsIt’s probably safe to assume that most people in Northern Ireland would not associate religion either with ‘peace’, or with ‘ex-combatants.’  But a new book by John Brewer, David Mitchell and Gerard Leavey, Ex-Combatants, Religion and Peace in Northern Ireland: The Role of Religion in Transitional Justice (Palgrave, 2013) fruitfully brings the three together and left me wondering why it hadn’t been done before.

For me, two of the research’s findings are of particular significance:

  1. Religion was not a significant motivator for peace among ex-combatants. Pragmatic considerations and the changing or softening of their points of view during prison mattered more in their decisions to cease violence.
  2. Both during the Troubles and now, the denominational churches have not engaged effectively with combatants and ex-combatants, constituting a ‘missed opportunity’ for conflict transformation in a context in which religion structures society and shapes identities.

The book is the product of a research project of the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health (NIAMH), where Leavey was formerly director of research.  Brewer, Professor of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen, and Leavey were principal investigators. Mitchell, then also of Aberdeen, was a research fellow.

So the objectives of the research were influenced by NIAMH’s mental health concerns, as well as by Brewer’s own research agenda, which has focused on the sociology of conflict, religion and Northern Ireland over many years. He is currently leading a major project on ‘Compromise after Conflict’ funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

The authors’ main research method was in-depth interviews, conducted with 29 ex-combatants (17 republicans and 12 loyalists). This is of course a relatively small number of interviewees upon which to base generalized conclusions. But small numbers of participants is common in qualitative research, especially among difficult-to-research groups speaking about sensitive subjects. The sample also was purposive in that it sought to include ex-combatants who are atheists, devout, and converts.

Among the project’s main research questions were:

  • Are ex-combatants personally devout?
  • Is religion important to their political identity?
  • Did faith play a role in their decision to take up arms, or lay them down?
  • And now that their war is over, does religion help them cope with the past?

Such questions are a considerable departure from current popular, and even some academic, analyses of ex-combatants, which assume ‘that they were irreligious and without morality ’ (p. 70). Indeed, I suspect many readers will be uncomfortable even asking questions about the faith of ex-combatants, presuming that had they been ‘real’ Christians,  they would not have taken up arms in the first place.

The authors find that the religious views of ex-combatants are diverse, tending to reflect the range of views found among ‘the general population who did not take up arms in the conflict’ (p. 43). Ex-combatants’ conflict experience did not seem to either predispose them to unbelief, nor did it encourage them to greater belief as a means to justify violence.  Indeed, the authors devote an entire chapter to ‘Religion and Motivations for Violence,’ reproducing narratives from the interviews which demonstrate how the complex interplays between ‘personality, experience, political understanding (however rudimentary), and opportunity’ – as well as religious influences – impacted decisions to engage in violence (p. 69). Not surprisingly, both republican and loyalist ex-combatants main motivation for violence was that they perceived themselves as having been attacked, and as defending themselves and their community.

Following on from that, it is also unsurprising that religion was not a significant motivator for peace. Indeed, the authors found that even among those who became more devout (Catholic) or became born-again (Protestant) during prison, this more often led them to prioritise ‘personal piety’ rather than working for peace (p. 90).

The authors link the failure of religion to inspire peace to a more general failure among the main denominational churches to engage effectively with those who resorted to violence. A chapter on ‘Ex-Combatants and the Churches’ reveals that both republican and loyalist ex-combatants – while often appreciating the work of individual clergy – were disappointed by the institutional churches. The republican perspective is summed up this way (p. 94):

‘There was a consistent view among interviewees – religious and non-religious, practising and non-practising – that the Catholic Church sided with the state during ‘the Troubles’, that they abrogated their responsibility to lead the Catholic community and resist injustice, and that they were extremely unhelpful to the Republican cause.’

They found an even greater ‘sense of distance’ among loyalist ex-combatants, who felt that the churches:

‘should have had a greater role in both restraining Loyalist violence and, crucially, in advocating and mobilising on behalf of embattled and impoverished Loyalist communities’ (p. 116).

Interviewees also commented on aspects of some expressions of evangelical theology as detrimental to reconciliation, such as that a perpetrator must repent before there can be forgiveness; others argued that churches ‘must share some of the responsibility for creating the abnormal social conditions out of which violence grew.’

[The book also considers that enduring question of the influence of the Rev Ian Paisley on loyalist violence, pp. 63-69. For me, two conclusions were especially striking:

  • Opinion about Paisley’s role in incitement was ‘mixed,’ but ‘animosity towards Paisley was virtually universal’ (p. 65)
  • ‘Loyalist combatants in prison, who had undergone a religious conversion, found Paisley’s anti-peace rhetoric disturbing and complained’ (p. 66)]

These findings echo and reinforce those of another recent book of which Brewer was lead author, Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland. It characterized the institutional churches as unable to critically reflect on their own roles in perpetuating division, and unwilling or unable to engage in creative work to ease Northern Ireland’s post-violence transition.

The final chapter of the book offers a generalised model for how religion can contribute to transitional justice processes. It highlights the importance of context, the possible content of religious inputs, and the timing and appropriateness of religious interventions. The authors also identify three broad types of interventions that can be instigated or supported by religious actors:

  • Truth recovery
  • Public accountability
  • Post-conflict reconstruction

This could be a useful framework for activist practitioners and policy-makers around the world to consider. As with Religion, Civil Society and Conflict in Northern Ireland,  it seems to be the authors’ hope that the institutional churches in Northern Ireland – not just small groups or individual Christians – also will consider taking up these tasks.

To that end, the chapter on ‘Perspectives on the Past: Religion in the Personal and the Political’ would make useful reading for those who think Northern Ireland’s churches could, and should, contribute to the debate on dealing with the past. This book makes clear that engaging with ex-combatants is a necessary part of that.

Like many academic books, this suffers from an unfortunate price tag of £55. But its main conclusions deserve to be widely disseminated and discussed.