It was assumed that the defining adversarial dynamic between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness would be the fact that one was staunchly loyalist while the other was proudly republican. In reality, it was an extremely fruitful relationship partially due to a shared belief in Christianity, with Paisley and McGuinness reportedly praying together during their time as First and Deputy First Ministers. There we see a partially overlooked aspect of the society in which we live in. Christianity’s deep impact upon all of us no matter the denomination. We only need to scratch the surface of our cultural make-up to see the obvious aspects in which it influences us.
None of what I have laid out so far will be of any real surprise to anyone familiar with this part of the world, but I would like to inspect a fundamental aspect of Christianity and how it has affected us and our political discourse: Good and Evil.
The idea of good vs evil could be reinterpreted into many forms. Right vs wrong. Virtue vs Sin. Even Truth vs Falsehood. The story of the bible itself, in its development, was a cosmic story of Good vs Evil but was often told through individual internal struggles with the idea of how to be ‘good’. Within the story, Good is obviously represented by God while Evil swaps between being represented by the Devil, corrupted individuals or even just the simple draw of temptation itself. But what did good even look like? God effectively sets out ‘Good’ in the covenant of the 10 commandments, a basic agreement between himself and the Jewish people. Much like a contract, God would receive loyalty and the Jewish people would receive God’s protection. The contract was not necessarily balanced (God himself admitted he was jealous and readily portrayed any other idols as evil) but it was generally profitable to the Jews who were suffering at the time the covenant was set out. Jesus’ subsequent agreement was more diverse. His agreement was not limited to one group of people (unique for religions of the time) and was not centred around protection but redemption and love. Jesus’ agreement was effectively internationalist. One of the remaining aspects of the agreement was that evil would still effectively be defined as anything other than Christ’s new church, truth and falsity would still be decided by the thoughts of the group you agreed with.
That dynamic would both bind Christendom and divide it. Fast forward nearly two millennia and the West defined itself as a Capitalist, Democratic and Christian society in the face of a Communist, Authoritarian and Atheist society (the USSR). You don’t have to dig very far to find Reagan’s language dripping with religious imagery in relation to America’s fight against the Russians. He was the first to use the term ‘the Evil Empire’ in a speech related to the USSR back in 1983 where he also said:
‘Yes, let us pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness—pray they will discover the joy of knowing God.’
The cold war was mainly focused on ideological battles but the Western ideology was suffused with the Christian ideas of good vs evil, of a definable Truth and a confirmed Lie. Those who were thought to have betrayed the West and spread the confirmed lie were treated like blasphemers rather than people with a simple political difference. It was that red scare that showed us the Good vs Evil paradigm was able to bind the West together in the fear of an outside evil (partially based on Christian thinking).
However, the concept of good vs evil can just as easily divide Christianity. After all, it was the reformation which spawned our own divided society. Its dynamics were not too far from the dynamics of the Cold War. Protestants viewed the Catholic church as a corrupted empire that had fallen away from Good while the Catholic church viewed the Protestants as a set of upstarts who were attempting to fracture the traditional ‘Good’ which had become defined by catholic establishments and institutions. Those who had once been brothers in faith were now adversaries.
In both the Cold War and the Reformation there is also a similar idea of conversion. That the opposition has been led astray and only needs to be shown the light to return to the path of Good. It was the US in the Cold War that attempted to convert anyone who would listen to their capitalist western model of society while conversion was a driving force in the reformation and the catholic churches’ counter-reformation (and the conflicts which followed). In both cases, coercive and elective methods of conversion were widely present but regardless of the method, there was an idea that ‘showing the light’ to your opponents was to suggest that the opponent was in the dark. Someone who might, even unknowingly, be on the side of evil.
Finally (better late than never), I would like to turn this perspective of Christian society on to Northern Ireland. The idea of good and evil is ever-present in our division which is closely tied to our religious socialisation. Both the cultures of Nationalism and Unionism drip with religious imagery, language and morality even though neither ideology necessarily relies on their respective religious denominations. Yet, both cultures have inherited the ideas of Good and Evil deeply into their cultural psyches. Both unionism and nationalism are already heavily associated with separate truths, with the GFA becoming an example that neither side can agree upon what is good within Northern Ireland’s most sacrosanct piece of legislation.
There have also been points in our history where conversion appears to have been on the minds of the politically inclined. Some may remember the quote from Terence O’Neill:
‘It is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house, they will live like Protestants.’
O’Neill’s comments present a belief (with little basis in reality) from the former First Minister that the nationalist community was only in need of being shown the light of how good life could be under the British state for them to convert. The same could also be said of recent talks amongst those in favour of a border poll and who wish to see a united Ireland. A belief clearly exists for some that disillusioned unionists could be open to the idea of converting if the right arguments were presented. Even in a place as divided as Northern Ireland, there has often been a feeling that conversion has not been impossible if only the right argument were formulated or the proper truth was spoken.
Yet, the divide between the good and the evil, the truthful and deceitful only seems to have intensified in the face of the NI Protocol. During the election, one community claimed there was no truth to the idea that the Protocol would define many people’s voting intentions and that the talk around the Protocol by the DUP was inherently deceitful. While the opposing community appeared not only to vote in substantial numbers for the DUP again, they also doubled down by substantially increasing the TUV’s vote share. Could it be that Jim Allister represented some strange morphed version of Ian Paisley? Who also appeared to follow in the line of Martin Luther’s proclamation that the establishment had lost its way. Paisley supplanted the UUP as the true unionist while Jim Allister now supplants the DUP as the true ‘Puritanical’ Unionist who is continuously obsessed by the lies of the opposition and the truth which only he can preach. All the while, any unionist who falters from the path of Jim Allister’s ‘Good’ is claimed to be a blasphemer to the union. Unionism’s divisions appear to be uniquely protestant. While Nationalism’s unity appears to be catholic at times. Sinn Fein’s newly found mastery of the nationalist voter base would suggest an ability to move with the times and update much in the way that the roman catholic church for centuries has been able to quell internal rivals with a unified front.
But where then does Alliance fit into this dynamic if the two larger communities pull from clearly religious backgrounds? Is it possible that Alliance has established itself as an atheistic alternative to the regular politics of Northern Ireland? Preaching not about symbolic meaning but tangible and fact-driven policymaking. Would that also explain their rise? While lagging behind the rest of the West, Northern Ireland has been slowly moving away from religion and attempting to find meaning elsewhere. Could Alliance’s rise portray a reality that many have expected since the signing of the GFA? Northern Ireland is developing a community of people, separate from Unionism or Nationalism, which no longer identifies with the typical designations of Evil and Good. Instead, opening a possibility that a (supposedly) more rationalist, technocratic form of politics may be able to emerge from our populist political duopoly but only if true reform of the political system is managed.
Pretentious metaphors aside, we take a peculiar kind of joy from musing continuously on Catholicism and Protestantism but we rarely take the time to consider how we have been culturally influenced by Christianity at large. Maybe one of the reasons is that we suffer from a Christian realism (a la Mark Fisher’s concept of Capitalist realism) where a Christian world is the only one which we have known so its influence upon us almost becomes benign (despite there being obvious functioning alternatives to Christianity unlike Capitalism). Alternatively, maybe what I have presented as the effects of Christianity are simply fundamental aspects of human society displayed under the guise of a religion, perceptions of Good and Evil are inbuilt into us but are best presented to us within our spiritual practices.
Co-Founder of BeyondNI. Studied politics at Ulster University