Did Religious Leaders Contribute to Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland? Review of Nukhet Sandal’s New Book

Did religious leaders contribute to conflict transformation in Northern Ireland? It’s a question posed in a new book by Nukhet Sandal, assistant professor of political science at Ohio University, USA – and answered with a resounding ‘yes.’

In Religious Leaders and Conflict Transformation: Northern Ireland and Beyond (Cambridge University Press, 2017), Sandal paints an overwhelmingly positive picture of religious leaders’ efforts to contribute to peacebuilding during the Troubles and after the Good Friday Agreement.

Sandal argues that religious leaders articulated an ‘inclusive public theology of citizenship’ and a ‘public theology of inclusive governance’ which pushed political leaders along the road to peace.

It is important to emphasise that Sandal distinguishes religious leaders from religious institutions, recognising that the churches themselves were often slow to follow those who were developing these theologies.

Sandal describes religious leaders as ‘knowledge producers’ who formed ‘epistemic communities’ in which they developed inclusive theologies and then disseminated them through public statements. [For those not familiar with the academic language, ‘epistemic’ simply means ‘related to knowledge,’ so these are knowledge-producing communities.] These epistemic communities were largely ecumenical, or made up of religious leaders from a variety of denominations. A great deal of her research is based on analysis of media reports of statements of religious leaders. She surmises that because the media reported on such statements, people were listening.

Sandal’s optimistic assessment contrasts to that of other scholars who have assessed the churches’ contributions to peacebuilding – most notably John Brewer, Liz Fawcett (and me). Brewer dismissed public statements as ‘speechifying’, arguing that they contributed little to peace on the ground and in fact may have prevented some church leaders from doing something more practical.

Fawcett believed that rather than religious leaders influencing politicians and policy makers, it was the other way around: religious leaders moderated their stance in order to maintain some sort of influence with a moderating ‘mainstream.’

When I interviewed people in congregations, most of them had absolutely no idea what church leaders had said about peacemaking, nor were they particularly aware of denomination-wide programmes like the Church of Ireland’s Hard Gospel programme or the Presbyterian Church’s peacemaking programme.  From that evidence, I found it difficult to conclude that church leaders’ statements and denominational programmes had far-reaching impacts.

Interestingly, while Brewer, Fawcett and I all conducted our work while living on this island, Sandal’s conclusions are more in line with those of other US-based scholars. American historian Scott Appleby concluded that Northern Ireland’s religious peacebuilders were among the most effective in the world; and American historian Ron Wells’ various books also have asserted religious peacebuilders’ central importance. Sandal acknowledges her debt to Appleby (p. 20); she does not cite Wells.

But this Atlantic divide does give some pause for thought: to what extent do scholars’ assessments depend on their own geographical location?

Sandal’s work is strongest when she describes how religious leaders initially responded to the violence of the Troubles by asserting that it was not a religious conflict; she then traces how ecumenical epistemic communities began to take a more nuanced stance, recognising religion’s role in contributing to division and opposition. Her analysis of statements from the 1970s is particularly helpful, as other work has not focused as much on this period.

Sandal also argues that the Rev Ian Paisley pushed religious leaders together in order to counter his potent mixing of religion and politics. In effect, Paisley’s extremism forced others to create more inclusive counter theologies. I agree with this to an extent; indeed, my own research has emphasised how those who formed the important peacebuilding organisation Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) did so in part to counter Paisleyism. But there is also a flip-side to this: while some religious leaders may have moderated, others became more conservative in order to prevent people from leaving their congregations for Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church.

It seems Sandal sees an even greater role for churches in the post-Good Friday Agreement era, pointing out that this was when many institutions (as opposed to more free-wheeling leaders and groups) rolled out peacemaking programmes, such as the Hard Gospel and Peacemaking projects. Unfortunately, Sandal’s analysis seems to stop circa 2009. She does not acknowledge that these programmes ceased once they lost outside funding. She presents the main Catholic peacebuilding initiative as emanating from Clonard Monastery – but fails to note that Fr Gerry Reynolds, who she rightly identifies as its leader, died in 2015. She claims that religious leaders established the Consultative Group on the Past which produced the Eames Bradley Report, when in reality it was the British Government that did so. And she does not mention the Irish Churches Peace Project, which ran between 2013-2015.

I think religious peacebuilding in Northern Ireland has lost momentum in the last decade, but Sandal does not engage with this possibility.

Having said that, I do not want to give the impression that I absolutely disagree with the assessments of Sandal, Appleby or Wells; indeed, I agree that Northern Ireland’s religious peacebuilders, though a minority within their denominations, probably have been among the most effective in the world. I simply see more limitations to their work, and areas for improvement, than Sandal recognises.

And all of this should not undercut what is a fundamental – and probably the most important argument – of the book: religious leaders can be effective allies in peacebuilding processes. In her final chapter, Sandal presents some ‘lessons and policy implications’ to help policy makers better engage with religious peacebuilders (p. 150-154). These lessons have been derived primarily from the Northern Ireland case and they could be a significant contribution to international debates.

(The paperback version of the book is £22 – a reasonable price for an academic book.)

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com