Future Ireland / Irish Unification: An Evangelical View

The Unification Agenda

At the time of writing, questions about unification are more topical than ever. Brexit has polarised our population, and this in its turn has added significant impetus to the unity debate. Supporters of unification have rightly read this as an opportunity, and proposals for border polls abound. Emotions across the population run high, with most people seeming to sit on either extreme of a continuum that runs between elation and dread.

So how do we pick our way around all these emotional roadblocks and come to an objective decision? Well I guess I can’t answer this for everyone. But in this article, I try to unpack my reasoning as an evangelical Christian. To accomplish this, I will have a go at tracing my viewpoints as they have evolved from my childhood until the present day.

Identity is Key

Let me begin by sharing a conclusion. Trying to process this topic, I concluded that my viewpoint was largely a product of my ‘identity’.

As I tried to unpack my identity however, I realised that it was a complex of influencers, with ‘more skins than an onion’. We each represent a diversity of identities based on gender, socio-economics, race/heritage spirituality, age, and many other factors.

In this article I will principally be looking at the categories of race/heritage, and, as I’m writing as an evangelical, I will also focus on religion/spirituality. This is because most of my thinking on unification has developed under the major influences of two very significant events my life: My Physical Birth, and my Spiritual Re-birth (I did warn you that I write as an evangelical Christian), and that both these events in turn, relate strongly to these two identity categories. 

  • The first is my birth (race/heritage), because with it came the culture that I was born into, and that so moulded my early thinking.
  • The second was my re-birth (Spirituality). Because this radically changed how I thought about just about everything!

When I say re-birth, I refer to something that happened when I was 23 years old. I had reached a point in my life, when I became acutely aware of my own inherent sinfulness and need of a Saviour. It caused me to begin to search for answers and I began to seek God. God was calling me from my old dark ways into an entirely new and beautiful way of living – a way so radically different than my old way, that He calls it re-birth. I surrendered to His call, became a follower of Jesus, and entered a new life which would be lived in His enablement. 

This had a profound effect on my thinking. Here’s why: The Bible talks a lot about this idea of rebirth (See John chapter 3, as one example) and makes clear that it will cause radical change in how we live. It goes on to explain that a large part of this change will involve having the way we think transformed.’ Here’s how a modern version of the Bible book of Romans (Chapter 12, verse 2)  explains it: ‘Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.’

This mind- renewal business is a journey of transformation which involves me being willing to put off many of those old inherited ways of thinking, and put on new ways, based on the teaching of Christ.   

Okay so that is by background. And I tell it to you, so you will better understand my changing thinking about Unification…

Shocked Awareness

I’ll start at the beginning.

I was born and raised, ‘till I was about eleven years old, in a little terrace house on the Shankill Road, so the identity branding of as a ‘Protestant’ was stamped firmly on me from an early age. At this point of course, I was a ‘Protestant without understanding’… I hadn’t a clue what that term meant. 

When I was about 10 years old I received my first shock treatment which left me in no doubt about the fact that Protestants and Catholics were different. I was walking home from my grannie’s house along a road that would be later categorised as part of the ‘Peace Line’, when I was approached by a rather butch lad of about 13 years old. He grabbed me by the neck and pinned me against a wall. Here’s how the conversation went:

‘What are you … a Catholic or a Prod?’ Now even at that age I had a strong survival instinct, so I replied, ‘What are you’? / ‘I’m a Catholic’, he said’/ ‘So am I,’ I responded. / ‘Ok,’ he said, ‘Then say the Hail Mary’/ ‘Who’s she’ said I, – BAM! – My lip soon became three times as thick as it was supposed to be.

My first experience of victimhood taught me that there was bitter animosity going on between Protestants and Catholics, but I’d no idea why. I also discovered that this bitterness was highly contagious, because that shock encounter had planted seeds of it deeply in my own young heart. The shock jolted my senses into a chilling awareness that there were people out there who had to be avoided, or alternatively, if there was no other option, defended against.

I think both communities (Protestant and Catholic) have had more than their fair share of kids who’ve been infected at an early age by this kind of awful awareness. I also believe that many of these kids have grown up into adults who tragically have taken things to a whole new level. Some of my childhood mates ended up serving long jail terms for paramilitary involvement. For them it is not just a question of ‘defending against’ but it had become more about ‘fighting for’ the perceived cause with an associated sense of superiority and divine right (For God and Ulster!’). To me this is a very unhealthy form of ‘Nationalism’ which has been a blight on our nation.

The divine right aspect also bothers me. It seems to assume that God had given us Ulster, and so no one could take it away from us. I don’t believe this view, and of course it cannot be justified Biblically. One of the central themes of the Bible concerns the idea of covenants (Solemn promises which God makes to chosen people). In the Old Testament God made a Covenant concerning the Jewish people with Abraham the father of the nation. This covenant related to an earthly promised land called Canaan / later Israel. In the New Testament God makes a new covenant through Jesus, which would relate to all who would become His followers (Christians). This new covenant was not linked to any earthly land (not even Ulster). Rather it is linked to a heavenly future Kingdom, not on earth.

As I thought more about this Ulster nationalist tendency it raised an important question in my mind:

Am I a Nationalist or a Patriot?

All this brings me to a core point in my convictions: I’ve learned that there is a difference between being a Nationalist and a Patriot. I always thought that these words were synonymous, but they are not. George Orwell explained this contrast in his essay “Notes on Nationalism”.

“By ‘nationalism’ […] I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.”

“God forgive our Nationalism”

Looking back on my life I can clearly see that my physical birth / heritage was conditioning me toward Nationalism, but that later by new-birth transformed my mind to reject that idea. I would now describe myself as a Patriot. Patriotism is based on affection and nationalism is rooted in rivalry and resentment. One can say that nationalism is militant by nature and patriotism is based on peace.

While nationalism can unite people it must be noted that it unites people against other people.’ (Sudhanva D Shetty).

I think that this is a great quote. It sums up a lot of the tragedy evidenced in much of our Irish history. Here’s the most recent example: I’m old enough to remember that until around 1967 both sides of our community had been living relatively peacefully together, but in 1968, everything began to change. Militants started by deliberately sowing seeds of suspicion and fear which, quickly polarised the population and generated a widespread siege mentality. This in turn, became the fertile spawning ground of the paramilitaries. And the rest, as they say, is our truly tragic history.

God’s Boot Camp

Okay back to God’s development programme. Nine years after my conversion I had been volunteering with a Christian youth organisation and was on their Board. This group sent summer teams out to work in various locations, one of which was Southern Ireland. Our role was to tell anyone who would listen, regardless of background, the good news of God’s plan of salvation that was bought for them at great price on the cross, but which was offered to them as a God’s free gift. I was asked to lead some of these teams which I did. God gave my wife and I a real love for all the people of Ireland, regardless of background.

Later, and even more surprising we felt His call to leave our home and move South to work among them. I gave up my job as a lecturer at Jordanstown and we moved with our three children to live in Carlow. Imagine… This young guy from the Shankill leading Bible discussions in homes, lounge bars, convents etc. among people who at times were praising God for the hunger strikers. Wow!

We had to learn to die to our own preferences to advance His… The higher calling. God blessed our work and next month we will journey back down to speak at the church which was established during the six years we spent there. What a privilege. God used these years to hone and develop us. This process was both very joyful at times and very painful at others. Our minds certainly did receive a lot of major transformation, and we came out of the ‘boot camp’ thinking very differently than we did when we went in.

So, as I close, here are some of the convictions which now guide my response to the Unification issue

  • I believe in patriotism: I love this wee country and I seek to be a good citizen of it. My birth/heritage has caused me to understand my identity as both Irish and British and so my desire is that partition would remain. I’m happy for things to remain as they are though the current dysfunctional Stormont set-up drives to distraction.
  • I am also called to be an ambassador for a Higher Kingdom: Though I seek to be a good citizen here (N. Ireland), my highest calling, without a doubt, is to be an Ambassador for a higher Kingdom – the Kingdom of God. I believe that Northern Ireland will benefit from my personal sense of a higher calling, because I live pro-actively to see Godly Kingdom values introduced into every aspect of living here, right now.  When I pray, ‘Let your Kingdom come on earth as in Heaven’ I mean it, and I live to see it happen. Godly values will enrich our nation.
  • I am a Bible believing Christian: I don’t see myself as a Protestant or Roman Catholic. Neither of those terms are in the Bible, and in this country, both carry such a lot of unhelpful baggage. I choose the church I go to based on whether it clearly teaches the Gospel of Grace.
  • I believe that National Repentance is needed: As I read through Irish History I deeply regret and am ashamed of some of the tragic things which the British inflicted on the Irish people. (And sometimes vice-versa). National Repentance is a familiar Biblical Theme. Many of the prophets repented for the ‘sins of their fathers’. I believe we as a nation need to do likewise and that when we do God will bless us.
  • I deplore violence: I don’t think that partition should be maintained through violent means. (This would be unionist nationalism in its worst form). It doesn’t work either at political or religious level. When Peter wanted to defend Jesus against those who had come to arrest Him, he drew his sword and cut of the high priest’s servant’s ear. Jesus rebuked him and told him to put away his sword. On every occasion since then, when people have tried to defend Christianity by violent means, the result has been the same. Ears have been cut off. The Crusades cut off Muslim ears and made them deaf to the Gospel. Irish Catholics and Protestants have cut of each other’s ears and both, at times, have become deaf to any meaningful communication.
  • I believe that God is good and that He both appoints and removes governments: He is the sovereign controller of all things even when I don’t understand them, I seek to trust in His goodness. In our case He chooses to appoint through democratic means, and so I submit to the democratic will of the people. I recognise that around half of our population could well sway toward unification, and I believe that they are fully entitled to their views, and to equal rights. If there were a border poll tomorrow, and the majority voted for unification, I would not resist its introduction.

Conclusion

Although I’d like to maintain the status quo, if unification does come I won’t fear it. I’ve already lived in the Republic for six years with my family in the past and we made many great friends there.

I may however feel a little bit like an exile.

I close with Jeremiah’s words written as advice to those of his people who had just been carried off into exile in Babylon: ‘Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper’ (Jeremiah 29).

This was very shocking advice to these exiles. Their default would have been to mount rebellions or general strikes. However, as history unfolded it proved to be very sound advice indeed. If the time comes it will be my default position as well… Thanks, Jeremiah.


** Part of the Future Ireland Series. Questions, ideas, pitches to Claire – claire@sluggerotoole.com or David – deputy@sluggerotoole.com. If you want to keep up with the conversation, click here.