When Northern Ireland’s constitutional convention dissolved in disarray last spring, many observers predicted a new outbreak of killing, a stepped-up IRA offensive, even open civil war. That never happened, and now the Peace People have proved once again the folly of trying to prophesy events in that troubled country.

Recently, Protestant and Catholic women, fed up with eight years of violence and empty political rhetoric, joined in an unprecedented show of unity. Some 20,000 of them marched together in Belfast to demand peace. No one was more surprised than the beleaguered citizens themselves, and few expected anything to come of it. However, the movement has grown, and while both the IRA and Ian Paisley have denounced it, one Belfast paper editorialized, “the ordinary, decent Northern Irishwoman and man have found their voice, and they like the sound of it better than the voices that have been loudly raised in their name over the last eight years.”

More Americans confess to not understanding the Northern Ireland conflict than to not understanding the Middle East or the situation in Cyprus or Africa or other world hot spots. The most frequently asked question: “Is it a religious war?”

The ugly spectacle of two Christian bodies resolving their differences through violence makes most Christians shudder. Yet bloody battles in the name of Christianity are nothing new. Right after the Reformation, Catholic-Protestant wars raged in Europe, and churchmen all too often had a hand in assassinations, massacres, and political machinations.

Although the Ulster conflict has been complicated by religion, it is much more than a denominational war. Political power, civil rights, economic discrimination, deep-seated political differences, group identity and survival—all these factors enter into a fight in which the two sides are termed “Protestant” and “Catholic.”

No one is arguing doctrine. Although a few Protestant politicians express anti-Catholic sentiments, Protestant militants aren’t fighting to protest the papal claim to infallibility or belief in the presence of Christ’s body in the Lord’s Supper. IRA leaders generally lean so far to the political left that the church has excommunicated them, and many are atheists. The Queens University students who kicked off the present spate of troubles in 1968 were declared Marxists.

Is it a religious war? No one is arguing doctrine. But tribal instincts are strong, and both Catholics and Protestants fear that their way of life is in danger. Churches have not done all they might to cool the flames.

Tribal instincts are strong, and both Protestants and Catholics fear that their way of life is in danger. Religion, however, as a Time essay writer put it, “always a receptacle for ultimate aspirations, can enlist the best and the worst in its congregations. In conflict, religion can be used—or perverted—to call up supernatural justifications for killing.” A few Protestant extremists in Northern Ireland sound disturbingly like Luther, who wrote, “He who will not hear God’s Word when it is spoken with kindness must listen to the headsman when he comes with his ax.”

The Ulster struggle, however, is not a throwback to the sixteenth century, even though there is a case for handing the blame for the deep sectarian feeling back to England. Without question, over the years the Westminster government inflamed the animosities between the two groups as a means of controlling the country. For example, when Irish lands were confiscated, the justification offered was protection against the papacy. Actually, it was protection against Spain and France that England had in mind.

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The Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Penal Laws of the early 1700s deprived Catholics of basic civil rights such as education, property ownership, and participation in public life. Lord Randolph Churchill, trying to oust the liberal Gladstone as prime minister in 1886, played what he called “the Orange Card.” He kindled the fears of Northern Protestants to believe that “home rule would mean Rome rule.”

H. M. Carson, a minister in Bangor, points a finger at history but aims it at the sixteenth-century reformers. He says they failed to deal with the Roman view of the state as sacred, and cites men such as John Calvin and John Knox, who thought in terms of national churches. When the seventeenth-century planters came to Ulster, they came not only as English and Scots but as Anglicans and Presbyterians. The cause of Ulster soon became the cause of Christ, and the conflict one between the people of God and the people not of God. Carson adds, parenthetically, that when one sees what the so-called Protestant population is like, one realizes how absurd that idea is.

“Under this kind of thinking,” Carson wrote, “the Protestant minister becomes an Elijah on Mt. Carmel facing the apostate ruler … and confronting the priests of Baal (for Baal read the Roman Catholic church).

“By New Testament standards, however, this is a false equation. No one nation today stands where Old Testament Israel stood. The Church of Christ is not the religious aspect of the nation but is the community of faith drawn out of the nation.”

Carson is one of many who bemoan the political involvement of ministers, especially as they commit churches to a political position. Although he doesn’t name the Reverend Ian Paisley in his writings, Carson is aware that Paisley is the chief exponent of this position. It is difficult to deny that it is a religious struggle when a man clearly states, as Paisley has, that he is fighting a religious battle. For him, no doubt, it is religious. The following passage from Paisley’s Protestant Telegraph is typical of his arguments:

“Ulster Protestants are passing through a time of tremendous testing. The Socialist government at Westminster is intent on their destruction. Harold Wilson, the puppet of Cardinal Heenan, and Mr. Callaghan, the puppet of Harold Wilson, are out for our destruction. Ulster is, in fact, to all intents and purposes under direct Westminster control, with a military dictatorship geared to placate the Roman Catholics and browbeat and ‘jackboot’ the Protestants.” (The Protestant siege mentality comes through here as strongly as the anti-Catholicism.)

Paisley’s anti-Catholic rhetoric has contributed immeasurably to the hardening of sectarian positions in the last six or seven years. How, for example, does someone on either side respond when he reads in the Protestant Telegraph, in an article about the sale of Hitler statuettes in Germany, the suggestion that they “make a statuette of the greatest war criminal that was never hanged, Pope Pius XII.” Paisley’s speeches are filled with more than bigotry and hatred. They are violent in nature and have contributed directly, as the Cameron Commission concluded, to riots and to bloodshed.

Just how influential is Ian Paisley and his Protestant Telegraph? No doubt he stepped into a leadership vacuum in the early seventies and struck a responsive chord with a majority of the Protestant working class. Then, as positions hardened, he swung many moderates behind him. And as Albert Menendez says in The Bitter Harvest, “it is doubtful that ultimate peace can come to Ulster unless the Protestants who subscribe to these views can be convinced that their fears are largely groundless.”

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While for Paisley it is a religious battle fought on the political level, many of his followers no doubt are more interested in the political part of it. Close associates of Paisley formed the Ulster Protestant Volunteers, some of whom were no doubt instrumental in reorganizing the Ulster Volunteer Force. The original UVF was the illegal Protestant paramilitary group formed by Lord Edward Carson in 1912, and it forced the division of Northern and Southern Ireland. Since it was reorganized in the late sixties, the UVF has been responsible for dozens of bombings, shootings, and deaths. Most outside observers agree that Ian Paisley’s rhetoric gave birth to the new Protestant volunteer movement.

A second focal point for anti-Catholicism in Northern Ireland is the Orange Order. At the close of the eighteenth century, Protestants, again feeling the threat of the Catholic majority, began forming secret societies that coalesced into the Orange Order. Its main purpose has always been to maintain Protestant supremacy, and it is impossible today to measure the immense influence it has on the social and political life of the country.

The Orange Order is a major factor in keeping Protestants convinced that the real enemy is Rome, and many rank-and-file Orangemen (some 100,000 in Ulster) believe that the Vatican was behind the civil-rights protests as a ploy in its plan for world conquest.

On July 12 each year the Orange Order sponsors the marches that on dozens of occasions have led to violence. Thousands of orange-sashed marchers with bowler hats, beating large drums, parade through the streets. Their very presence provokes strong Catholic antagonism, and they often feed these feelings with anti-Catholic taunts and jeers. These bring stones, rocks, and bottles down on the marchers, and the battle is on.

This, by the way, is the organization that teaches its members to respond, when asked why they are Orangemen, “Because I desire to live to the Glory of God, and, resisting every superstition and idolatry, earnestly to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.”

To what extent, then, are the churches to blame for the current situation? Could they, if they so willed, exert more influence for peace?

Certainly they have made the expected pronouncements. At regular intervals, or after some particularly bloody incident, leading churchmen deplore the violence and the current state of war. Bishop so and so “condemns the foul and callous bombing of the pub in the Falls Road.” Or the moderator of the such and such church says, “When will we come to our senses and sit down together to work out our differences?” Every major church group has made a dozen such statements, and hundreds of sermons have been preached on peace, brotherhood, non-violence, and the like.

But all too often the speeches of churchmen, while calling for an end to violence, also heap fuel on the fire by pinning blame on the other side. After the bitter battles of Belfast and Londonderry in August, 1969, Cardinal Conway called on his people to “remember that Protestants in general are good Christian people.” Yet at the same time he threw the blame at the feet of Protestant mobs. Immediately three leading Protestants attacked the cardinal’s statement.

Protestant and Catholic clergy have, of course, been conditioned by the same culture and history as their flocks. They also feel the weight of heavy community pressure. Any sign of reconciliation or offer of peace may be taken as weakness or straying from the faith and could bring on them the scorn of their own people.

Christians find it hard to admit that their faith can be a factor in a shameful scandal such as that in Northern Ireland. No doubt faith is not to blame. But that which has passed for religion in Ireland and in many parts of the world since the fall of man has certainly been a large part of the problem. On top of that, the churches and church leaders who bear the name of Christ have contributed significantly to the blot on his name.

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Many thinking people in Northern Ireland have looked at churches’ involvement (or lack of it) and rejected the institution and its basic message. As one local editorial writer put it, “it is no wonder that so many honest men and women avoid the hypocrisy of such ‘Christianity’ and in the process opt for a fairly civilized life, based on roughly asserted secular values that at least have some aesthetic appeal.”

On the other hand, individual acts of Christian love abound, even though their effect on efforts for peace is negligible. There was, for example, the pastor who was sitting in his office before a Sunday-evening service when word came of trouble down the street. “My place is down there,” he said, and he ran from the church. At the riot scene he found two groups hurling rocks, bottles, and curses. He also found an Anglican rector, two curates, a parish priest, and a Methodist minister. The clergymen linked arms and formed a human barrier between the two mobs.

Then there is the Methodist minister who takes his people caroling each Christmas in a Catholic section; the mill worker who lost both legs in a bomb blast but feels no bitterness; the young man who once threw rocks at the soldiers but now plays gospel songs on his guitar in the army canteen. And there is the priest to whom the army turned for help to quell a riot; he walked up to a group of angry women and said, “Sure, and do you know what they tell me? That all the good-looking women are going home.” That brought a good laugh and broke up the crowd.

Another place where the sectarian wall has toppled and where bitterness and prejudice seem to have dissolved is within the charismatic movement. It has spawned a half dozen or more weekly meetings in which Presbyterians, Brethren, Methodists, and other Protestants pray, sing, study the Bible and worship with Catholics, an almost unheard of event before this. While the charismatic movement in Ireland is lay oriented, leading Catholic and Protestant clergymen are involved.

A few leading churchmen have also risen above sectarianism. Some Protestant clergymen dared to meet with IRA leaders to help bring about a temporary ceasefire one Christmas. Others on both sides have braved scorn and recriminations to make meaningful contact with their opposites. But they are a minority.

Writers and commentators in Ireland generally avoid any great show of optimism. When asked about the future, they often devise scenarios—if A were to happen, then B would follow.

Many Christians pray for revival and for peace, but the two are inseparably linked in their minds. There seems to be an assumption that if God is going to do anything, it must be to bring an end to the troubles. Peace is viewed more politically than spiritually. The most frequently quoted Scripture verse in the country may be Second Chronicles 7:14—“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

Of course, if Christ genuinely changes a life, it will show up in behavior. If love and patience and longsuffering and peace replace hatred and bigotry and fear and unrest in a large number of lives, why shouldn’t we expect it to touch all areas of life and bring peace to a weary land?

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