Conflict in Northern Ireland erupts onto North American television screens with enigmatic intensity and frequency. The names of hunger-striker Bobby Sands and fundamentalist preacher-politician Ian Paisley are well known. The issues that gave them their prominence are less clearly understood.

Perhaps some North American evangelicals are uneasy about the war in Northern Ireland, sensing that Protestants there share with them common roots of theology and, in the case of the Scots-Irish, of ethnic background. Certainly many North American Catholics acknowledge a commitment to the “green” side of the Ulster conflict and contribute generously to the support of the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA). How, if at all, should American evangelicals react? Should they respond with solidarity—or embarrassment—to the situation of their coreligionists across the Atlantic?

Since 1969, more than 25,000 people have been injured, and over 2,100 have died violent deaths in Ulster. This rural province contains a population of only one-and-a-half million, six counties, two medium-sized cities, and covers an area a little larger than Connecticut. In Belfast, 30,000 people relocated their homes in the five years following the onset of violence in 1969 as they sought refuge in Protestant or Catholic residential suburbs. The British government has paid compensation claims totaling hundreds of millions of dollars for bombed property and personal injuries and death. Every week brings continuing news of sectarian assassination of Protestants by the IRA and of horrifying revenge killings. One Western rural area near the frontier with the Irish Republic has currently about 50 unsolved political murders, and the families of isolated Protestant farmers live in daily fear of the IRA’S bullet and booby-trap bomb.

Religious leaders, both Catholic and Protestant, are closely identified with the conflict. In the case of the Roman Catholic church, it is for failing to excommunicate convicted IRA terrorists, and for giving succour to hunger strikers. Extreme Protestant churchmen, like Ian Paisley, blend religion and politics, provoking widespread appeal among a mass of Protestants, saints and sinners alike.

The key to even a basic understanding of the Irish conflict is in the history and religious geography of the country. The Republic, with its capital in Dublin, has a population of about three-and-a-half million, of whom less than 5 percent are Protestants. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, part of the United Kingdom and with its provincial capital in Belfast, has a split of about 65 percent Protestant and 35 percent Catholic. Whereas the Protestant population of the Republic has been declining for over a century, the Catholic population of Northern Ireland has been growing slowly for 50 years.

Article continues below

The concentration of one million Protestants in Ulster is explained by colonization of that part of Ireland, which began in the seventeenth century at precisely the time when the celebrated Mayflower settlers were establishing themselves at Plymouth Colony. Colonists from England were mainly Anglicans; those from Scotland, Presbyterians. Both were equally glad to homestead on the lands of displaced Catholic native Irish—land granted to them by the British Crown and secured for them in the face of violent opposition by English and Scottish armies.

In the 13 American colonies, the native Indian population was decisively beaten by the settlers and thorough conquest precluded a nasty minority problem like Ulster’s. By contrast, in the northern part of Ireland a numerically significant native Irish population survives, its historic disaffection nurtured by a continuing sense of grievance and injustice.

The settlement patterns of 300 years ago are still largely intact in rural areas, with Presbyterians (28 percent) concentrated to the immediate south and north of Belfast, and Anglicans (23 percent) to the south and west of Northern Ireland. Methodism grew out of Anglicanism, and the distribution of Methodists (5 percent) follows that of the Anglicans.

Roman Catholics are most heavily concentrated in the south, west, and northwest of the province and in Belfast, where they make up about 30 percent of the city’s population. Smaller groups—like Baptists, Congregationalists, Plymouth Brethren, Pentecostals, and Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterians—are found throughout the mainly Protestant areas within about 50 miles of Belfast.

The seventeenth-century settlement was planned by the British Crown to secure the north of Ireland in the hands of loyal Protestants and prevent its exploitation by the Catholic French as a strategic base from which to invade Britain. Just as the late medieval population settlement bore the birthmarks of international religious and political conflict, so 300 years later politics and religion still unite to blight and mar the island. Indeed, when Ireland was divided in 1920, the frontier separating the two parts of the country was drawn around Northern Ireland to encompass the maximum number of Protestants. It is not surprising that Protestantism has been the dominant religious force in the North, and, conversely, that Roman Catholics there have felt themselves to be a precarious minority. Paradoxically, the situation of Catholics in Northern Ireland is mirrored by the minority position of Ulster Protestants in the island as a whole.

Article continues below

Evangelical Christianity in Northern Ireland is numerically quite strong—one estimate puts its numbers at from 60,000 to 100,000. Evangelicals are sparsely represented in the Church of Ireland (Anglican) and receive little support from their church authorities. In Presbyterianism, on the other hand, evangelical numbers and influence have been growing steadily for the last quarter century. Today about 35 percent of the Presbyterian clergy would take a broadly evangelical view. Tracing their roots even beyond the 1859 Revival, most evangelicals are strongly committed to the fundamentals and are tirelessly active in organized Bible study, gospel campaigns, and in the support of overseas missionary work and other traditional forms of evangelical activity.

In many Protestant towns and villages, street meetings are a visible sign of evangelistic vitality, and up to 100,000 children are enrolled in Sunday schools across the province. More novel forms of evangelistic expression are also being developed. These include a Christian film ministry reaching an international market, effective outreach to prisons, and a range of city ministries based on the Belfast YMCA. Charismatics have been gaining in strength and confidence in the last 10 years, too, and have to their credit many attempts to glorify Christ in the midst of conflict.

There are some close links between evangelicalism in North America and Northern Ireland. Christian bookstores throughout Ulster are heavily stocked with literature from the U.S. and Canada. Indeed, the links with North America go back to Dwight L. Moody and his preaching visits to Ulster in the late nineteenth century.

Theologically, the northern Irish brand of evangelical Christianity has always been strongly separatist, polemical, and characterized by denominational jealousies. The Presbyterian and Anglican churches are Reformed in theology and amillenial in their eschatology. Premillenial eschatology, on the other hand, has wide currency among most evangelicals, and in the case of the Plymouth Brethren is usually translated into abstention from political participation. The historic “peace denominations” are represented only by the Quakers, who are generally evangelical in theology. Though few in number, their untiring work for reconciliation between the two communities has won them respect and appreciation from all sides in the conflict.

Article continues below

Evangelicals are drawn for the most part from the middle and lower middle classes, and with a predominantly rural background a generation or two ago, most are socially and politically conservative. There is virtually no tradition of social radicalism among Protestants in Northern Ireland. A major paradox in their world view is that, while they readily and generously give to mission and social concern agencies in the Third World (with some exceptions, mainly among the Methodists), they have been notably indifferent to social inequalities at home.

In the North, despite their numerical strength and the fact that they account for perhaps 20 percent of regular Protestant church-goers, evangelicals, surprisingly, lack theological weight commensurate with their numbers and activity. This may be so because they are minorities in the Presbyterian and Anglican denominations and in Methodism, and they have only occasionally obtained leadership positions in denominational councils. The smaller church groups, Baptists, Brethren, Pentecostals, and Free Presbyterians, are normally thoroughly evangelical. Once again, however, their considerable potential influence is dissipated owing to their separateness. Some evangelicals from different denominations find common focus through organizations like Inter-Varsity, and movements like the YMCA and Keswick. But even then, there is a sense of separateness as their awareness of spiritual unity is diminished by frequent reminders of denominational shibboleths.

The theme of minorities is important in the conflict in Ireland. Protestants are a minority of about 22 percent in population of the island as a whole. And as we have seen, evangelicals often have a greater awareness of their isolation than of their strength. Catholics in Northern Ireland, outnumbered two to one, have every reason to see themselves as a minority. Indeed, in Belfast where Catholics are very heavily outnumbered by Protestants, they have sometimes feared liquidation in a kind of sectarian pogrom. Protestants, on the other hand, often perceive their Catholic neighbors as potentially or actually seditious, committed to the erosion or overthrow of the very constitutional basis upon which Northern Ireland is established.

Article continues below

Fifty years of reciprocal suspicion has meant that until the 1970s most Catholics in Ulster were second-class citizens, as illustrated by their social class and occupational profiles. Mutual suspicion and the fear engendered by mistrust and social precariousness have combined to produce a kind of religious tribalism often found in more traditional societies. To be a Protestant, or a Catholic, in Northern Ireland is not simply a theological fact; it is indicative of a total world view that translates itself into sectarian politics.

Some element of sectarian tension has always been a feature of social life in Belfast and in rural frontier areas. It has frequently erupted into civil disturbance and violence. The last century saw nine such outbursts, and the current “Troubles” are the fourth in the last 80 years. Sadly, therefore, sectarianism is a dominant feature of society in Ulster, a social phenomenon made worse by the educational policies of the Catholic church which, insisting on separate education and a dual system of schools, continues to ensure the social and cultural isolation of Catholic and Protestant children.

Just as the sectarian issue is a dominant feature of social life in Ulster, so the land frontier with the Irish Republic, “the Border” as it is known, is the most important political reality in Ireland today. For the Nationalist movement, for Catholics in Northern Ireland, and hence for the Catholic church, the Border is anathema. It is a symbol of the occupation of part of the island by what they see as a foreign army, an unceasing inspiration to the IRA, outlawed in both parts of Ireland. And neither of the main political parties in Dublin, their histories permanently marked by their civil war in the 1920s over the partitioning of the country, has been able, until recently, to break out of traditional postures toward Northern Ireland. Even today some 600 IRA terrorist suspects, wanted for violent crimes in Northern Ireland, are living in the sanctuary of the Irish Republic, which steadfastly refuses to allow extradition to Britain.

But the Protestant view from Belfast is vastly different. More than any other political institution, “the Border” is sacred. It is regarded as a bulwark against Republicanism and Catholicism. It is seen as a kind of stockade protecting a Protestant fortress. Ultimately most Protestants, evangelical or otherwise, cling to it as their guarantee of freedom of worship and conscience. Many insist that it must be protected at all costs if Ulster’s Protestant and evangelical heritage is to be preserved.

Article continues below

To illustrate the basis for his dogmatism, the Protestant in Ulster will point to the 1937 Constitution of the Irish Republic, which lays claim to the territory of Northern Ireland; denies divorce to Protestants and Catholics; and is the basis of a legal system severely restricting access to contraception by all, Protestants and Catholics alike. Further, he will point to the shrinking Protestant community in the Irish Republic, and to inexorable Catholic policy on inter-faith marriages, which, insisting that children of such marriages be brought up in the Catholic faith, has led over 50 years to a kind of slow genocide of the Protestant population there.

The evangelical will probably refer also to the struggle against enormous odds by new believers in the Irish Republic. Some officers there in the Irish Army were recently forced, on pain of army discipline, to sever all links with Campus Crusade for Christ, the organization responsible for leading them to Christ while at university. Further, in November 1981 a recently formed evangelical church established by born-again Roman Catholics in county Roscommon in the Irish Republic was the focus of national attention after the local Catholic bishop orchestrated a national mass media campaign to pressure its members to return to the Catholic church. These recent illustrations, and many more, would be cited to reinforce the assertion that for much of rural Ireland, religious pluralism is virtually unknown and the parish priest and his bishop are the officers of a monolithic Catholicism that continues to play an almost medieval role in community life.

This is the background against which the hard-line views of Ulster’s one million Protestants must be evaluated. They have an almost paranoid fear of Dublin and its claims over their territory. They bitterly resent being used as a “political football” by American politicians fishing for the Irish vote in the United States. They deeply distrust the British and are convinced that successive London administrations are determined to “sell out” Northern Ireland to Dublin. They see ecumenism as a ploy in the hands of Catholic churchmen determined to erode Protestanism, destroy the gospel, and establish their hegemony over the Protestant people of Ulster. The murderous terrorist campaign of the Provisional IRA, causing death and destruction to the lives and livelihoods of so many Protestants, appears to them to have the covert support of many Catholic clergy and some bishops. Small wonder that Protestantism in Northern Ireland feels under siege.

Article continues below

The political groupings in the North of Ireland that existed to maintain the constitutional link with the British Parliament and Crown are known as Unionist. Unionism has long been synonymous with Protestantism—at least in the sense that for 50 years Unionist parties refused membership to Roman Catholics. And Unionism has always been closely aligned with the Orange Order, a 200-year-old Protestant fraternity with some 1,500 local branches and a membership of about 90,000 (about 32 percent of Northern Ireland’s adult male Protestants). The Orange Order is avowedly religious. It exists to protect and maintain the Protestant faith, and is currently led by Martin Smyth, an evangelical Presbyterian minister. It is not difficult to see that for Catholics living in Northern Ireland, Protestantism and Unionism are closely identified. The gospel of justification by faith and commitment to the authority of Scripture appear to be theological dimensions of an integrated politico-religious world view.

Until 1972, Northern Ireland had its own Parliament; during its 50-year life, the only party in power was the Unionist party. Its permanent majority led to great frustration among the elected representatives of the Catholic population who were politically impotent. Because Catholics were seen as disloyal and in fundamental disagreement with the very basis of the state, they were virtually excluded from executive-level employment in central or local government, and they experienced severe discrimination in employment and in the allocation of state housing. These frustrations boiled over in the late 1960s, when, encouraged by the civil-rights movement in North America, political activists formed the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association to press for equity for Catholics by nonviolent means, and to draw attention to abuses in employment and housing. By 1973, as a result of their efforts major legislation and the setting up of monitoring agencies had eliminated those abuses.

Out of the collision between the civil-rights movement and the Northern Ireland Unionist Administration grew the Provisional IRA, and, in 1972, the abolition of the Belfast Parliament. This led to direct rule by British politicians appointed by the British government. But the aims of the IRA are nothing short of abolition of the Northern Ireland state, and the establishment of a Cuba-style revolutionary socialist republic in Ireland. And in pursuit of those aims, their campaign of indiscriminate murder, violence, and political propaganda continues. During one week in November 1981, the IRA carried out five murders. These included Robert Bradford, an evangelical, who had been a Methodist minister and was a Unionist member of the House of Commons at Westminster. No event in the last five years so infuriated and incensed Protestant opinion in Northern Ireland, and frustration at the ineffective security policy of the London direct-rule administration was at an all-time high. In this atmosphere, the recent accords between the London and Dublin governments, in the view of most Protestants and almost all Unionists, only add political insult to the massive physical injury inflicted by the IRA. It is an attitude epitomized by Ian Paisley when he called British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher a “traitor and liar” in the House of Commons.

Article continues below

The security situation and fear of imminent sellout by Britain provide the context in which the role of the Reverend Ian Paisley must be seen. Dr. Paisley (the doctorate is an honorary award from Bob Jones University) is the most powerful politician Ulster has seen for 50 years. He is an elected member of both the British Parliament in London and the European Parliament, as well as being the leader of his Democratic Unionist Party (established in 1971 as the Protestant Unionist Party). He is the head of his own denomination, the fast-growing Free Presbyterian Church, which he founded about 30 years ago.

Paisley is an inveterate opponent of ecumenism, and his first political grouping, established in the mid 1960s, was Ulster Protestant Action, which was established to fight what he saw as a “Romeward trend” in the Presbyterian church. His Martyrs’ Memorial Church in Belfast is probably the largest Protestant church built in Ireland in the past 50 years. It is the stage each week for his strange blend of fundamentalism and excoriation of the British administration in Ulster. His Democratic Unionist Party now has achieved considerable power in local government across Ulster and has made Sunday observance a main plank in its political platform. Accordingly, several towns have been forced to close their sports complexes on Sundays following controversial and highly unpopular decisions. Paisley’s enormous following among the Protestant population is constantly reinforced by his evident compassion for the victims of IRA gunmen, and his weekly schedule often includes attendance at several funerals.

Article continues below

Paisley explains his theology as Reformed. As a preacher he claims a prophetic mandate, and as a politician he believes he wields the magistrate’s sword. Pointing to what he regards as the singular blessing of God on his political career and claiming recently that he spends “more time in prayer than perhaps any other Protestant minister” in Northern Ireland, Paisley is imbued with a conviction and sense of destiny that is reminiscent of a medieval crusader. Certainly his politics and religion intermingle in a perplexing and often frightening manner. His followers include many thousands of ultra right-wing evangelicals and tens of thousands of theologically nondescript Protestants to whom he offers a resolute leadership more notable for what it opposes than for what it affirms.

The emergence in late 1981 of Paisley’s “Third Force” is a particularly menacing development with its claims of nearly 100,000 armed volunteers, many of whom are commanded by ministers in his Free Presbyterian Church. It is remarkable that Paisley—who places such stress on the doctrine of separation when applied to fellow Christians—can without qualm completely set this aside in the political realm. Politically, and among the Protestant paramilitary organizations, he has some strange bedfellows.

Escalating IRA violence is enabling Paisley to consolidate his political leadership, largely at the expense of the more moderate, but poorly led, Official Unionist Party. And his claim that close to half the members of the Third Force are Presbyterians causes alarm in the ranks of the Presbyterian church. As the Belfast Telegraph newspaper recently put it, “The battle is on, not only for the heart of Unionism but also for the soul of Presbyterianism.” Many Protestants, however, find his rhetoric and political opportunism an embarrassment. They are profoundly disquieted by his anti-Catholic stand, feeling that the gospel of Jesus Christ is tainted by association with his provincial politics. Not for nothing has he been called “The unmitred pope of a pope-hating people.”

In recent weeks, there have been signs of a growing cleavage among evangelicals within the Presbyterian tradition, and a number of moderates have called for Christians in Northern Ireland to forsake the political idols of Ulster Protestantism and turn their backs on violence as a means of protecting themselves. Paisley, of course, is only the latest in a line of Protestant Unionist politicians whose aim has been to protect the economic and social advantage of Northern Ireland’s Protestants. How unfortunate it is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is harnessed to such a partisan cause. Certainly the mutual succour of politics and Protestantism in Northern Ireland for almost a century has quarantined evangelical belief within the Protestant population and has contributed to the coming together of Catholicism and Irish Nationalism.

Article continues below

Evangelicals in Northern Ireland are clearly intimately bound up in the conflict there. What is the way forward for them? It would be easy to sit in judgment from afar and mildly tell them what they must do. But that would be offensive and insensitive. The settler ancestors of the one million Protestants of Northern Ireland have occupied their farms and towns for much longer than the average American family has been in the United States.

Ulster’s Protestants value their freedom of worship and conscience as highly as any American. They have a high regard for the rule of law and are indignant and afraid when IRA gunmen seem to strike at will from the sanctuary of the Irish Republic and carry out their frequent murders with terrifying randomness and efficiency. Proud of their British heritage, they are fiercely loyal to the Crown and are determined to repulse every antidemocratic attempt to sever their province from the United Kingdom. How, they might indignantly ask, would Americans react if Mexican terrorists sought to intimidate the population of Texas and remove it from the Union? Would they suggest that U.S. citizens there should be repatriated and that Texas should be handed over despite the democratic wishes of its population?

But evangelicals in Ulster have many lessons to learn from the conflict. Christianity in Ulster needs to be depoliticized. The churches need to become more truly biblical; they must explore and preach what it really means to follow Christ and to love one’s (Catholic) neighbor. They need to learn how to represent Jesus Christ and his gospel in such a way that men and women are free to accept Christ without being expected to buy a package of political and social attitudes. They need to question some aspects of Paisley’s doctrine of the state and his rationale for tying Christians to political commitments. Similar arguments were used to justify the Crusades of the Middle Ages, the Spanish Inquisition, and Cromwell’s theocracy.

Article continues below

We would all do well to remember that the Lord who said to Peter, “put up thy sword into thy sheath,” told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world, else would my servants fight.” The spiritual history of Ireland, North and South, would have been very different if Christians had chosen the path of peace and had prized loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ over maintaining economic and social advantage. Christians in many countries have yet to learn to heed Peter’s lesson, set out so clearly in his first epistle.

Arthur Williamson teaches at the New University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. His field is social policy. He is coeditor of Violence and Social Services in Northern Ireland (Heineman Educational Books, London, 1978).

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.