It’s clear from this 1987 government file marked CENT/1/16/23A [selective scan] – now been released under the 30/20 Year Rule – that the NIO spent much of the mid to late 1980s scratching their heads and trying to find ways of encouraging the more fulsome involvement of church denominations in the peace process.
The NIO, even with £100,000 of funding on offer, was up against senior church figures who claimed that diary pressures had – over many, many months – prevented them finding “an opportunity to discuss the issue of the churches’ future role in community relations activities in depth”.
A sin of omission or commission?
The senior church leaders were less than enthusiastic to government approaches, in contrast to the grass roots clerical ‘mavericks’ (to use Prof John Brewer’s phrase from his 2011 book Religion, Civil Society, and Peace in Northern Ireland which he repeated recently at Féile an Phobail and on Sunday Sequence).
At one level, difficulties lay in providing government funding to bodies which would pursue particular theological agendas, occasionally at odds with each other, and the newly released file includes voluminous internal NIO correspondence around the challenge of identifying suitable vehicles to fund.
The promotion of inter-church community action groups, mainly made up of lay people, and formed in a way that would “not impinge on theology or conscience” was one possibility that would eventually be implemented. And the Churches Central Committee for Community Work (CCCCW) was a preferred option.
“I do not believe that getting the churches to work together in community-based projects with a social action slant is likely to impact on the broad mass of church membership or beyond … any schemes will be few and far between and will reflect a social commitment on the part of a few individuals or congregations.”
[My own recollection of the inter-church groups in some areas was that while they engaged some new faces, they took a soft approach and did little to challenge prejudice. Wilson’s correction was correct. But Brewer and others have better evidence to back up their authored conclusions!]
Willson identified that bringing churches together and treating them “as essentially social, rather than spiritual, institutions” ignored the fact that changes of attitude were more likely – particularly among the clergy – “if issues are addressed in spiritual, rather than secular terms”.
He proposed encouraging churches “to engage in a philosophical or spiritual debate within their denominations in the first place before they can move on to a wider, more open context”.
He cited Bishop Cathal Daly who had made comments in 1988 about the role of the Catholic school system in reconciliation.
Looking at the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Wilson had sounded out a minister, and advocated funding “someone of the standing of say an ex-moderator” in a full-time post that would involve touring around congregations to raise the profile of cross-community work within the denomination.
He also suggested that lack of central finance was preventing “leading religious speakers” from America, Australia, South Africa and South America being brought to Northern Ireland by individual congregations. Larger organised events could address groups of ministers, “a number of whom would come away from an event of this nature with different understandings”.
Wilson’s memo finished with the suggestion that social attitude research amongst clergy would indicate that “around 40% of the Presbyterian clergy was likely to vote DUP!” (which merited an exclamation mark).
The Churches Consultative Group had its first meeting with Minister of State Brian Mawhinney (who had responsibility for community relations policy) on 24 October 1988 with one representative from the largest four denominations present.
The existing inter-church Waterside Advice Centre was discussed along with the idea of setting up an alcohol-free pub in Belfast modelled on “the pub with no beer” already established in Armagh, and a proposal for a Forward Together Programme based out of St Anne’s Cathedral.
While the NIO proposed a major conference of clergy and religious leaders to examine the role of the churches in community relations, the church leaders’ response “was disappointing … they felt that the moment was not then right for such an event”.
Preparatory papers for the third meeting included the bone of “a figure of up to £100,000 … to support new projects aimed at developing links between churches at local level” with the plan to publicise the offer a press release after the meeting.
A minute of a meeting with church leaders on 3 May 1990 returned to the conference.
“Discussion moved to the future role of the church in community relations activities. The Minister suggested that at present there appeared not to be a great deal of overt church involvement in Community Relations, and that he did not wish to see the development of community relations on a solely secular basis. The possibility had been raised at the last meeting of sponsoring a community relations conference with a carefully defined agenda, and the Minister asked if the church leaders had had any more thoughts on this …”
“Rev [Charles] Eyre said that it had been difficult in light of pressures on the church leaders’ diaries to find an opportunity to discuss the issue of the churches’ future role in community relations activities in depth.”
Later in the meeting, Dr [Tom] Simpson [PCI] “emphasised that many activities designed to improve community relations were taking place quietly and privately behind the scenes”. He noted that “when the media took an interest in something [it] had the effect of killing it off”. He added that “teachers were in a stronger position than local clerics to carry out and maintain cross-community activities”.
This flew in the face of Brian Mawhinney who had all along “emphasised the importance of a signal being given from the top to inspire others to act”. The meeting ended with a £100,000 carrot being once again dangled in front of the church leaders “to encourage the churches at local level to undertake projects in which they had mutual interest … cultural, social, economic or charitable”.
Days after their third meeting on 3 May 1990, Cardinal O’Fiaich suddenly died. This caused a hiatus in meetings of the Churches Consultative Group.
The cardinal’s death also caused the NIO to debate the delicate issue of whether – and how – to “register their interest in an element of consultation over the appointment of a successor”. Archbishop Gerado pointed out that such an approach would not be distasteful as “the Vatican is well used to frank speaking in private”. However, it was decided that the Secretary of State would instead raise the issue “in a low key way”.
A conference was eventually held in Cookstown and attended by clergy and laity. A January 1991 memo by Tony McCusker on ‘The Role of the Churches in Community Relations’ noted that “those in authority may not have appreciated that there was the level of inter-church activity which Cookstown illustrated” and supposed that “the climate was right to try new initiatives to bridge the divisions between churches at community level”.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.